THE STORY – 15-year-old Holly calls her school to say she is staying home for the day. Soon after, a fire breaks out at the school, killing several students. With everyone touched by the tragedy, the community comes together, trying to heal. Anna, a teacher, intrigued by Holly and her strange premonition, invites her to join the volunteering group she runs. Holly’s presence seems to bring peace of mind, warmth, and hope to those she encounters. But soon, people begin to seek out Holly and her cathartic energy, demanding more and more from the young girl.
THE CAST – Cathalina Geeraerts, Felix Heremans, Greet Verstraete, Serdi Faki Alici, Els Deceukelier, Maya Louisa Sterkendries, Robby Cleiren & Sara De Bosschere
THE TEAM – Fien Troch (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 103 Minutes
A fascinating concept can inherently be found in stories that tackle some kind of supernatural element in the modern day. These stories are particularly intriguing if the basis for such an exploration is not bombastic with ghostly manifestations that indulge in such a histrionic spectacle. A quieter analysis, rooted in a more grounded aura, can be just as invigorating an experience. This can be the basis for richer characterization juxtaposing nicely against the displayed metaphysical reality. That may very well be the intention for a film such as “Holly,” but the results are, sadly, a mostly tedious exercise that struggles to convey anything meaningful.
The film’s protagonist and title character is Holly (Cathalina Geeraerts), a meek 15-year-old who holds a deep emotional connection with the world. One day, she feels a strong urge inside her, leading her to call her school to say she won’t be attending because of a foreboding suspicion. Later that day, a fire breaks out, and several students’ lives are lost. Months pass, and the community is still reeling from this tragedy. It is soon discovered, however, that Holly possesses an unusual ability. As Anne (Greet Verstraete) first noticed, it appears that Holly can come into physical contact with people and immediately remove any anxiety in their life. Anne invites Holly into a volunteer group she runs, and immediately, people are taken with the joy she brings. However, the attention soon intensifies, and Holly is left at a loss as to how to deliver her gifts without becoming engulfed by her own melancholy in the process.
A strange, celestial aura may be the foundation for this work, but writer-director Fien Troch doesn’t completely examine this conceit in the most engaging manner. There’s an association that Holly might be a modern-day witch in how she possesses these powers, yet the rules associated with them are weakly defined. As such, the narrative struggles to be fully invested in the design of this unique environment. The storytelling ends up becoming a tedious exhibition, so monotonous in its pacing that it hardly seizes any opportunity to naturally build momentum. The scenes just feel so stagnant, and one struggles to become more invested. One can appreciate Troch’s overall filmmaking, which creates some striking imagery that taps into a subtle yet effective tension. Yet, it’s a shame there aren’t too many examples of how to utilize this craft into a more enthralling piece.
For all the faults present in a story that doesn’t easily make itself compelling, Geeraerts brings a captivating presence to the role. Her haunting gaze is the focus of so many scenes, and there is a soulfulness that runs throughout that is genuinely realized. It is not necessarily a complex portrait, but she captures an earnestness that is very alluring. This is also oddly present with Felix Heremans, who plays Holly’s friend Bart, a trusted confidant who has behavioral problems that force a mean personality. It’s a grating and irritating presence, but intentionally so, and Heremans brings an authenticity that still manages to be profound. Verstraete is also an impressively skillful rendering of a woman conflicted with being enamored with such divinity while also selfishly resentful of it. It’s a tight area to walk, and her performance traverses it well.
The actors end up doing a great deal to lift “Holly” above its drab material. Their portrayals offer more insight into the emotional catharsis of this narrative than any other aspect does, unfortunately. Troch demonstrates proficiency in the direction, but those efforts cannot overcome the hollow core. What is meant to be a profound character study is instead a languid commentary, poorly executed in how it establishes the procedures and missing the energy needed to invigorate the setting. Potential did exist for this unique approach to this almost-ghostly tale using an innovative method, but that is an elusive proposition.