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Review: ‘Hellbender’ Kicks Ass at the Fantasia International Film Festival



Review: 'Hellbender' Kicks Ass at the Fantasia International Film Festival

Yes, baby. HELLBENDER has music, hybrid-witches, the woods, face painting, and a kick-ass opening—you simply have to see it. HELLBENDER premiered at the Fantasia International Film Festival and was immediately a fan favorite online; everyone was smitten.

It opens with teenager Izzy (Zelda Adams) and her mother (Toby Poser) playing rad music with painted faces. They play dirgy heavy metal punk that also sounds a bit like the 90s band Veruca Salt because of the lyrics. Izzy rocks the drums while her mother jams out on the guitar, dressed up like rockstars for themselves and no one else, which is incredible, but also part of the problem. Izzy’s mother is her best friend, which is good but not entirely healthy; Izzy needs friends her own age.

While hiking, Izzy makes a friend when friendly Amber (Lulu Adams) asks her if she’d like a beer, and they hang by the pool. Izzy doesn’t have friends because she has an ‘illness,’ and she’s supposed to stay away from people, but she can’t resist. Lulu Adams, who plays Amber, brings warmth to her character, and the way she says “Hellbender!!!” is hilarious. For a second, I thought Izzy had found her new lead singer because Amber reminded me of Amy Taylor from Amyl and the Sniffers, same energy. 

Amber is fun and chill and just what Izzy needed—a friend, but their friendship is uneasy because Izzy’s not used to being around people. She has been homeschooled her entire life so she has no idea how to act around other teen girls, though she’s fine at first, but Izzy doesn’t understand boundaries since she spends most of her time with her mom, who is a Hellbender.

Hellbenders are demonic witches who derive their power from life, so if they eat a worm, a rabbit, or a human, they get superpowers, though they can survive on roots and grass if they choose. Not only are they witches and demons, they’re also apex predators, which means they’re at the top of the food chain in their niche, and as much as we’d like to forget, Nature is cruel.

“Spring eats Winter. Winter eats Fall. Fall eats Summer. Summer eats Spring.” 

Hellbender has everything going for it, the performances by Zelda Adams and Toby Poser, the writing, the direction, particularly the framing of the mother and daughter conversations. If HELLBENDER misses anything, it’s more action from hellbenders because their supernatural powers are fascinating. We see a persecution scene so haunting and original that we wanted to see more like it though those scenes are expensive. Also, inventing monsters and their mythology is tricky; if you create an interesting enough ‘monster,’ everyone wants more action. More bloodsucking! More eyes exploding! More hellbenders bending hell and Satan crying in his teacups!

Overall, HELLBENDER is about a mother and daughter relationship, and their bond is what makes HELLBENDER stand out at Fantasia because it examines a mother and daughter connection without falling into the trap of a snarky teen daughter fighting with her mother. Izzy’s relationship with her mother is beautiful, at least at first, and one that many would envy, particularly those who grew up without a mother. 

And mothers are significant, just ask Tony Soprano. Though the mother in HELLBENDER is a good one, a great one, perhaps too good. Many can have a baby; it’s taking care of it that’s the critical part, and she cares for Izzy, possibly being the mother she wanted. Mothering is not simply about giving birth, as some transphobes might have you believe. It’s about taking care of another person and any person who nurtures another is a mother.

HELLBENDER was written, produced, and directed by a really cool ensemble, a family who creates independent films together: John Adams, Toby Poser, and Zelda Adams, who star respectively as the mother and Izzy. Each one is the writer, director, and producer of the project. HELLBENDER is a dark, imaginative, and totally rad indie that is bound to be picked up by a terrific distributor, and the music is fantastic. I hope they release a soundtrack because I was instantly hooked. The lyrics reminded me of Heart, Veruca Salt, Babes in Toyland, and the wicked drumming reminded me of Hole’s Patty Schemel or Dee Plakas of L7. Bend hell, hellbender!