Horror movies and coming of age stories are often a good pairing–the terrors of growing up have been the subject of dozens of horror movies, from It Follows to Christine to Let the Right One In. I would wager that if you think of the scariest, most nerve-wracking moments in your life, many would be during your formative years, when you aren't sure who you really are yet. Raw, directed by French newcomer Julia Ducournau, does this superbly well, and with a level of complexity rarely seen in these kinds of films.
The story follows Justine (Garance Marillier) as she starts veterinarian school to join her older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf), following in the footsteps of their parents. Her parents are militant vegetarians, and Justine is happy to uphold their animal rights beliefs, but a freshman hazing ritual has her eat a raw rabbit kidney after having animal blood dumped on her. After this, she develops a craving for meat that escalates into a craving for human flesh. This is all complicated by the fact that Alexia seems to encourage this cannibalistic behavior in her sister.
Throughout the film, there is lots of imagery that suggests themes of growing up or becoming a new person: as part of the hazing, Justine must wear a diaper to class, and at one point Alexia tries to teach Justine how to pee standing up, but she just ends up wetting her pants. There's a lot of Justine trying to be more like her sister, or being pressured into being more like her. Sex and sexuality play a big role, too, as both sisters attempt to seduce Justine's gay male roommate, and Justine experiments with her own homosexuality at the height of her animal lust.
Despite it's college drama trappings, though, Raw is replete with horror and gore that will no doubt turn off some. Even in a post-torture porn horror movie world, some of the gross out moments in this film are downright disturbing. The scene in which Justine decides to try human flesh for the first time is one that has already reached an adrenaline high, so the disturbing and revolting aspect of it is extremely heightened. As a huge horror fan, I consider myself to have a strong constitution for gore, but I found myself making faces during a few scenes. Given the film's themes, I consider this a major success; it really drives home the feeling of shame when you've done something deeply reprehensible in the name of trying something new.
While most coming of age stories depict someone growing into a more mature adult as they learn the lessons of adolescence, Raw shows something meaner; it shows how this process can be an ugly one, one that turns you into a person your younger self would be ashamed of. In the film's bold final scene, we see that Justine's condition is not just a phase, but rather something she must come to live with and, as another character tells her, "find a solution" for. It's a surprisingly powerful message, that one has to find a way to make your neuroses and bad habits work as an adult. It's impossible to suppress these things, but even worse to let them roam free, so the only answer is to find a way (or someone) who can balance them out.
For those with a strong stomach, Raw is well worth seeking out. It's an impressive feature debut for Ducournau, full of bold moments and haunting shots that continue to stick in my mind days after seeing it. Certainly one of the best movies of the year so far!
Raw is directed by Julia Ducournau and stars Garance Marillier and Ella Rumpf. It opens in Landmark theaters this Friday, 3/24.