The classic fairy tale has been in vogue of late, with reinventions appearing on television (Grimm, Once Upon a Time) and film (Snow White and the Huntsman, the upcoming Angelina Jolie epic Maleficent).
Winnipeg filmmaker Danishka Esterhazy takes a refreshingly different take on the genre. She cuts out fantasy and delivers a raw, realist approach to a beloved tale.
Scripted by Esterhazy and Rebecca Gibson, H & G is an adaptation of the Grimms' Hansel and Gretel without the supernatural elements.
But just because there is no wicked witch doesn't mean there is no wickedness.
Gemma (Breazy Diduck-Wilson) and Harley (Annika Elyse Irving) are the offspring of a single mom Krysstal (Ashley Rebecca Moore). Krysstal's affection for her children is apparently at odds with her desire for an unencumbered life. If there is not enough milk and food in the fridge, she'll scam some out of the local church. But a serious game plan for her children is beyond the young woman's capacity.
When a new boyfriend demands they go to a party, Krysstal stashes the kids in the back seat of the car and tells them to stay there. After a post-party fight, Krysstal is abandoned on the highway, with the same fate later befalling the two children.
The next morning, the two plucky kids venture out and discover a farmhouse, occupied by a solitary pig farmer named Brendon (Tony Porteous). Gemma phones home but Krysstal is not picking up. Brendon is a brooding, ill-tempered man, but he forms an affection for Harley, and is content to let Gemma clean his house. Brendon's brother Willy (Dan Baker-Moor) implies that leaving her brother alone with Brendon is not a good idea.
Esterhazy conceived of H & G as a kind of origin story, exploring the kind of real-life occurrence that might have inspired the writing of Hansel and Gretel, which was, at the very least, a tale of criminal child neglect.
Even in a realist context, the movie could be tougher and more evocative. For example, it's a story that should be set in a gloomy autumn, not an idyllic summer. And while Esterhazy has no trouble suggesting the masculine potential for evil, she tends to give the mother figure an unwarranted pass here as a corrective gesture to the implicit misogyny of fairy tales past, with all those wicked stepmothers and stepsisters. (Given that the male Harley is portrayed -- very convincingly -- by a girl, one might interpret this as a wholesale write-off of the masculine capacity for good.)
Beyond that, however, H & G is a bracingly fresh take on an old story, celebrating the resilience and even heroism of the very young. Esterhazy gets fine performances from two very young actors and also manages to elicit a certain dread on their behalf without engaging in unseemly exploitation.
After her previous frontier melodrama Black Field, Esterhazy again proves to be a filmmaker who can get maximum storytelling impact from a minimal budget.