A teenage girl's mind can be a tricky, mysterious place, with corridors as dark and haunted as any ghost house. That's the setting of Sonny Mallhi's Anguish, which follows two teenagers living in a small, picturesque town some months apart. There is no external spook causing trouble in Anguish; it is a film that creates horror entirely within, and it does so very effectively.
Amberley Gridley is Lucy, a rebellious teen who defies her mother (Karina Logue's Sarah) by storming out of the car on a busy highway - and immediately gets hit by a truck, ending her life. And then we have Tess (a remarkable Ryan Simpkins), who has recently moved to the town with her mother. Tess is troubled and over-medicated, with episodes of fear, anxiety and hallucinations dating back to when she was five years old. Her father is a career soldier, spending much of Tess' life overseas; we can see how close they are, as she plays his guitar and rides his skateboard. They Skype regularly and Tess lights up in a way we never see otherwise from the wary, withdrawn girl. But much of Tess' rearing has been left to her mother, Jessica (Annika Marks). Jessica was a teenager herself when she had Tess, and she seems overwhelmed by the depths of Tess' emotional needs, keeping her on a heavy regimen of medication.
We soon learn that Tess' hallucinations are actually a tether to the spirit world, allowing her to see what we cannot. Skateboarding past Lucy's roadside memorial, Tess stops to casually inspect the photo - and is then violently drawn into a connection with Lucy's spirit, one that threatens to overtake Tess' own in her weakened and exhausted state. Doctors can't help her, and neither can the local priest, so it's soon left to two tired, single mothers to fight for their daughters' souls.
Mallhi is a veteran horror producer, but Anguish is his directorial debut, and he shows a deft hand in scaring audiences. Anguish has perhaps more than its share of jump scares, but it's also built on a deep and pervasive atmosphere of dread. It's gorgeously shot, making the absolute most of the chilly, elegant setting, and the four women who make up the story turn in extraordinary performances. Anguish's strength lies in the emotional backbone of that story; it's about the toll that mental health remedies can take on troubled teens who have yet to understand their own minds, but it's also a story about mothers and daughters - the immovable bond that they share, the lengths a mother will go to in order to save her daughter.
Anguish is from the point of view of both unhappy teenage daughter and overburdened single mother, and it shows a beautiful empathy for and understanding of both roles. It's scary and unsettling, but it's also quite unconventional in the poignancy of its story. This is a horror movie that starts with characters and then moves to scares, a rare thing these days, and because we do care for these characters so much, it's that much more terrifying when their very souls - or the souls of their daughters - are at stake.