Sophia Lillis is on the rise.
Since her big-screen debut as Beverly Marsh in 2017’s much-anticipated “It” reboot, Lillis has worked with some Hollywood heavy-hitters: Amy Adams and Patricia Clarkson in HBO’s “Sharp Objects”; Paul Bettany in “Uncle Frank”; and she’s sharing the screen with Oscar-winner Naomi Watts in “The Burning Season,” slated for release this year.
But for all the star-powered trajectory, they’re not all winners. And that brings us to “Gretel & Hansel.”
The Grimm’s fairy tale about an abandoned-in-the-woods brother and sister’s run-in with a cannibalistic witch and her house made of sweets has seen many film iterations ranging from a pair of adult witch hunters to a kid-friendly tale.
In this, screenwriter Rob Hayes (“Chewing Gum”) puts Gretel in the driver’s seat as the teenage sis to 8-year-old Hansel.
After the siblings’ mother evicts them, starving and lost in the woods, the two stumble upon a tabled feast in a black, angular home of the witch (Alice Krige), who is offering room and board at a high price.
Lillis is believable in this Gothic era. With short, russet hair and a deep stare, she exudes a grave earnestness as the survivor of hard times, suspicion and directness. Yet, she also plants slight, slow-burning half-smiles and warmth at times with her brother.
Alice Krige as the witch is emaciated and wrinkled, with blackened fingers and a mysterious accent. She moves slowly, deliberately mixing mysterious drinks, and dipping and massaging her boney fingers with salve. Yet when she eats, she gobbles hungrily.
Samuel Leakey makes his big-screen debut as Hansel, who speaks up and tries to find his way but is unable to fend for himself. He is wholly innocent, offering a peek into the tragedy of the times.
The best thing about “Gretel & Hansel” is the cinematography. Galo Olivares (“Roma”) expertly uses silhouettes, colorful backlighting and candlelit shadows to play up the Gothic tone.
Director Oz Perkins (son of Anthony Perkins, “Psycho’s” Norman Bates) communicates much with shots of the two youth nearly lost in the height of the trees and intentional angles of Gretel and Hansel from above and below, communicating their agency.
Set designer Mary Pike’s influence peaks out in stained glass, human-formed chess pieces and oddly placed sewing mannequins, which reinforce a theme of disembodiment.
These filmmakers are having fun mixing tropes, dressing the witch in a traditional witch’s hat, she calls Gretel “my pretty,” and they hint at predatory themes in Red Riding Hood:
“The big bad world opened up to us like a terrible mouth,” Gretel says.
Everyone’s hungry in this film, even the ghosts, says the kids’ mother before threatening to hack them into tiny pieces. And “Gretel & Hansel” plays up the concept of consumption for power, filicide and this underlying question of a woman’s options.
“Gretel & Hansel” loses momentum and an opportunity to play up its promise of mystery and horror. The tension quickly drains, and what’s left as a driving force feels unworthy of the wait — as does this film.
The saving grace is Sophia Lillis, and charting where she'll go from here.
Starring: Sophia Lillis, Samuel Leakey, Alice Krige
Director: Oz Perkins (as Osgood Perkins)
Writer: Rob Hayes
Available: Amazon, Google Play, Hulu
Melinda Lavine is a features reporter and movie reviewer for the News Tribune. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.