What if the hysteria-driven violence of the Salem witch trials endured nicely into a up to date America, the place witches actually did exist? That’s the intriguing premise of Elle Callahan’s sophomore characteristic, Witch Hunt, and it’s a disgrace that such an bold concept is finally marred by muddled worldbuilding and regarding appropriation of all-too-real discrimination.
At first look, the movie’s opening imagery of a screaming lady being burned on the stake in New England might’ve been drawn from any story about Puritan-era witch hunts. Then the digicam pulls out to disclose we’re very a lot within the current, as the girl’s two daughters look on helplessly. Positive, this model of the US has magic, however the torture of girls who apply it has resulted in a rustic that’s extra Handmaid’s Story-meets-YA dystopia than The Craft.
Lower to a classroom three months later, the place teen wallflower Claire (Gideon Adlon) is making an attempt to get by at her new California highschool. She’s tenuously fallen in with a mean-girl good friend group who torment anybody who may need magical lineage. They’re not alone—America has primarily banned witches’ existence altogether, establishing a federal Bureau of Witchcraft Investigation and an eleventh Modification that strips witches of their primary constitutional rights.
The existence of magical beings leaves Claire coping with greater than common teen angst. She will be able to’t have any of her new buddies over to the farmhouse she shares together with her widowed mother, Martha (Elizabeth Mitchell) or youthful brothers (Cameron and Nicholas Crovetti). It wouldn’t look nice if witch-hating youngsters found Martha often hides fleeing witches within the partitions.
Claire is beginning to resent her mother’s secret operation when the household receives two new Mexico-bound refugees: Fiona (Abigail Cowen) and Shae (Echo Campbell), the identical two ladies who watched their mom burn at first of the film. The ladies’ keep turns into longer than anticipated after thuggish federal agent Hawthorne (Christian Camargo) begins sniffing round as the women put together to make their escape. Claire’s disdain softens as she bonds with Fiona, whose teenage years are additionally burdened by this explicit pressure of American vitriol. Their friendship grows as Hawthorne and his males shut in on the safehouse, forcing Claire to reckon with repressed magical powers of her personal.
Witch Hunt capabilities greatest in its quietest moments, from Claire confronting Martha in regards to the weight of shouldering her secret to Claire and Fiona commiserating over their desires of freedom by an on-the-nose however endearing dialogue of Thelma & Louise. Adlon and Cowen’s performances are standouts, and I can’t assist feeling the movie might have labored higher as a extra contained coming-of-age story.
Whereas Callahan’s high-concept alternate United States is admirable in idea, it by no means fairly comes collectively. The excessive stakes of this world are undermined by characters’ stupidly harmful actions, making it onerous to care in regards to the tense third act as a lot because the movie clearly desires you to. The magical lore is rarely instantly fleshed out, both, with extra fascinating threads (like a demon-esque lady who shadows Claire) rapidly discarded. The magical results themselves are low-grade, which might be far more simply forgiven if we had a greater deal with on what these powers meant anyway.
What’s extra regarding is Witch Hunt’s whitewashed central allegory. The witches’ plight is supposed to reflect American xenophobia and our nation’s notoriously merciless immigration system — many witches are detained in camps, and a crude border wall has been erected. The operation Martha is concerned in is a variation on the Underground Railroad and the secure homes established throughout the Holocaust. However on this case, the persecuted class is completely composed of redheaded white ladies, with seemingly no thought as to how racism and misogyny have all the time intersected in comparable, real-life methods of oppression.
In a single early scene, a Black man driving a stowaway witch to the border is pulled over and brutalized by Hawthorne in one of many movie’s most violent scenes. That the optics of the scene are by no means addressed is absurd, given how white ladies’s quest for liberation all through American historical past has typically instantly ignored and excluded individuals of colour. This queasy metaphor might’ve been prevented if Callahan’s witches weren’t solely white. As a substitute, it comes off as an ignorant white feminist selection at greatest and shallow appropriation at worst.
For years, witchcraft has been retooled as an interesting metaphor for girls preventing to outlive and thrive exterior patriarchal confines. Witch Hunt might have been an fascinating variation on this rising subgenre—if solely it had a self-awareness that matched its lofty intentions.