Book of Birdie Ilirida MemedovskiYear: 2018
Director(s): Elizabeth E. Schuch
Writer(s): Elizabeth E. Schuch, Anami Tara Shucart
Rating: n/a
Color, 91 mins

Synopsis: A young girl is given to the care of a convent and starts a journey of self discovery.

At their core, films say what we can’t say with words. Elizabeth Schuch’s The Book of Birdie is a great example of this. Speaking to us in the abstract, Schuch’s film uses religious faith as a way to explore the idea of death and the way it affects us more than we realize. Replete with gothic atmosphere, gruesome visions of the undead and religious iconography, this thing is as hypnotic as it is poetically morbid. Anchored by Ilirida Memedovski haunting performance, the resulting fairy tale plays an empowering survival story that resonates.

13-year-old Birdie (Ilirida Memedovski) is sent to live at a dying convent in sleepy, snowy Lake Michigan. Though we don’t immediately know all the details, we do know that her grandmother has placed her there for her own protection. Birdie is disoriented, but the Nuns take to her quickly, offering her their care even if they are a bit overbearing. On her first night at the convent, Birdie suffers a miscarriage. She keeps the fetus, names it Ignatius and preserves it in a jar, seeing the unborn child as a gift. As the days go by, Birdie begins to retreat further into her own imagination. She secretly creates art using her own blood, while also entertaining visions of nuns who previously died on the premises. She also befriends a young girl named Julia (Kitty Hall), striking up an intimate relationship. As Birdie’s grasp on reality begins to slip, she explores the meanings of her visions and teeters on the edge of either madness or self-discovery.

With a plot hinging on deep symbolism, Schuch’s effort refreshingly appeals more toward our emotion than logic. On surface, it’s a visually ravishing portrait of a girl left to her own morbid devices. Deeper, it explores the effects of deep seated trauma through repression and loneliness. And yet, despite how dark the film is, Birdie’s perspective is one that always points toward hope, upholding a romanticism that goes beyond the film’s overt love story. Schuch has tapped into something very primal here, pinpointing the way we cope with horror and become stronger through it. Amidst the film’s respectful depiction of faith, Schuch also leans into our very natural and contradictory impulses, pushing Birdie toward an honest reflection of mortality and human impulse. As a whole, the film’s disparate elements cohere through delicate direction, offering a feminine coming-of-age story that’s unlike any we’ve seen before.

Book of Birdie review Ilirida Memedovski Kitty FennGiven the story’s focused perspective, Ilirida Memedovski’s Birdie is its true centerpiece. Memedovski’s wide-eyed gaze and sincerity are what offset the film’s horror. Through her, we buy into an innate strength that sits just below the surface. Even with the film’s heightened sense of reality, Memedovski gives everything a relatable slant, creating a heroine who responds to the world around her with true authenticity. Opposite, Kitty Hall’s more open and free performance helps to pinpoint Birdie’s courage, giving the film a peak of what lies outside of Birdie’s bubble.

The Book of Birdie is ghoulish and unsettling at times, but isn’t a film that wallows in darkness. Schuch has somehow found a way to turn darkness not into light, but into something that we healthily accept and feel at peace with. In turn, Shuch’s feature debut is the arrival of a major voice. She’s seen all of the horror films that we have, but brought a more grounded humanity to the mix. Her stylings are inventive and keenly aware of the relation between human frailty and inner strength, giving this small, but impactful film big ideas and unexpected grace.

SG