The Girl and the Devil Bird

A girl hatches a changeling from an egg, in this body-horror fable from Finland

From its metaphoric title to its unexpected tone, Hatching is a film of layers. There is depth, real depth here, and if it doesn’t seem apparent in every scene, it’s lurking just below the surface.

The story of a small girl who must learn to control her temper and anger and learn to tame her inner demon, Hatching is like a mix between E.T. and American Beauty. It’s a gently spooky hybrid, combining a number of elements–fable and reality, horror and tragedy, comedy and fantasy–in a way that feels as sincere as a mother-daughter embrace, and as terrifying as a seventh grade report card.

This duality starts at the very beginning, with an idea for a script that came from Finnish actor Ilja Rautsi when he was in high school: what if a boy hatched a doppelganger from an egg? Director Hanna Bergholm liked the concept but wanted to switch it to a girl, that way she could mix the fable with elements of her own childhood. She based the mother-daughter relationship on her own mother, as well as the city on her own neighborhood of Turku, Finland.

The film opens on a drone floating over a suburban street where every house looks the same, giving us a birds-eye-view of mowed lawns and manicured hedges that can only be found in gated communities …or in Blue Velvet. Everything seems clean on the surface of this family home–mom’s a blogger, dad’s a broker–but you don’t want to look under the carpet. Tanja (Siiri Solalina) is a 12-year-old gymnast who is pushed to the limit by her mother, to the point that, when she finds an egg that turns into a bird-like monster, she keeps it for revenge. Then the bird starts to grow and act like Tanja.

Feeding off her emotions and desperate to take her to the dark side forever, “Alli” begins to stalk Tanja across rivers, forests, streets and homes. This simple but high-concept premise of the dual creature only works with a heroine like Tanja and the challenges she faces to appease her mother. Bergholm relies on visual storytelling for story beats and scares, and on Solalinna’s performance to establish a youngster who is by no means helpless, she just doesn’t know what she’s doing.

As a horror film, Hatching leans more on mystery than blood and guts, but crucially, Bergholm establishes the pathos of this supernatural story, then expands on it, one of the most important and underrated aspects of a horror film. Because the demon feeds on her emotions, most of the sequences have an added layer of weight, sometimes even causing us to sympathize with the outbursts of violence from Tanja’s feathery, overprotective friend.

With its grounded emotions (and heightened realism), Hatching is more of a subdued horror flick and won’t necessarily appeal to genre fans. The story is deceptively simple. However, built around a universal tale of mother-daughter relationships, underpinned with a message that speaks to our most primal selves–yearning for connection and acceptance–it has a heavy metaphorical resonance. In the hands of another director, this might have been another excuse to pile up bodies for no apparent reason. In the hands of Bergholm, it’s a layered and relatable triumph.

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Asher Luberto

Asher Luberto is a film critic for L.A. Weekly, The Playlist, The Progressive and The Village Voice.

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