There is a great deal to like about Jourdan McClure’s Children of Sorrow and a great deal to be disappointed with. Religious cultism will always be of interest and offers filmmakers real opportunity to create claustrophobic and atmospheric intrigue around a subject we all think we know and yet will never fully understand. McClure almost, almost succeeds but there are sadly just too many plot holes and contrivances to make his film work. In looking for her missing sister, Ellen (Hannah Levien) becomes involved in what appears to be a small, largely misunderstood religious community, isolated from the world somewhere near the U.S./Mexico border. As the viewer, we are aware from the outset that charismatic leader Simon Leach (Bill Oberst Jr.) is a fraud; a serial killer who establishes these communities for motives never fully explained but seemingly with the sole intent of murdering everyone who attends.
As events turn from the suspicious to the sinister, Ellen discovers more about herself than she ever thought or feared. The brooding malevolence that is generated in the first half of Children of Sorrow through subtle inferences and a superbly creepy central performance from horror veteran Oberst Jr. develops into a story that becomes increasingly confused as it tries to shock and disturb the audience. Leach has been established as a terrifyingly dangerous fake from the beginning, a man manipulating and deviously influencing his disciples to brainwash them into welcoming what he calls a “transition”. As such, the film could have spent less time further emphasising his mental instability and more on developing the other characters. Set over just 40 days, the changes in personalities feel too dramatic. These are vulnerable people, that is never in doubt, but Ellen, who arrived as a rational woman seeking answers, becomes deeply connected with Leach, forgetting her initial reason for being there altogether. There would seem to be no reason why a longer time period couldn’t have been utilised and this would have allowed the brainwashing process more depth and conviction.
The violence that occurs also feels too easy, as if the filmmakers reached a point where they thought they had the audience on-side and simply flipped a switch, changing the film’s tone from one of grim portent to bloody slasher. One character simply runs away and is forgotten about, while others meet their end screaming yet strangely do not fight back. As for the direction, this proves both brilliant and hugely irritating. Not billed as a found footage film, the camera feels unsure as everything is filmed by the characters. There is no need to dwell on the flaws in the filming premise, and it’s best just to ignore them and try and go with the film, but there is one question that just refuses to go away: Leach justifies the reason for filming the majority of the scenes but why does he then record the violence? For his own enjoyment perhaps? It’s something that never feels quite right. All this seems very critical but only because Children of Sorrow promised so much. The cast members who are actually given something to do deliver brilliantly haunting performances, depicting both confusion and hope while ignoring the abuse and manipulation they are victims of. As a film depicting the dangers of fanaticism and cults, Children of Sorrow stands up favourably in comparison to Ti West’s The Sacrament and Mitchell Altieri’s Holy Ghost People. This is a film worth seeking out and one that does offer something different to the sub-genre. It’s just such a shame it doesn’t follow through on such a strong opening and do justice to the performances within.
INFO: CHILDREN OF SORROW / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: JOURDAN MCCLURE / SCREENPLAY: JOURDAN MCCLURE, RYAN FINNERTY / STARRING: BILL OBERST JR., HANNAH LEVIEN, WHITNEY NIELSEN, NICH KAUFFMAN / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW