A single mother struggles to hold on to her sanity as she’s forced to turn to extreme measures to satisfy her son’s increasingly inhuman appetite.
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“The monster is there from the start. Rather than shroud him in mystery, peeking out from darkened corners, Paul Holbrook and Sam Dawe’s short film, Hungry Joe, crafts an origin story with its titular boogeyman front and center. The brilliant tension of the film is not derived from where Joe is, but what he is, and the inability of all in his orbit to see it clearly. In doing so, the filmmaking duo brilliantly marry two of Britain’s most formidable film traditions—Hammer Film monster flicks and Social Realism—in an astonishingly seamless manner.
While Joe provides the macabre, fantastical element that allows the film to be categorized as one of the UK’s great modern horror shorts, he is not the main character. That would be Laura (Laura Bayston), his suffering Mother, whose life unravels in the years of Joe’s maturation. Joe consumes an inhuman amount of food yet never gains weight. A noxious smell emanates from his body that no amount of scrubbing can wash away. The sheer logistics of supporting his appetite consume her resources, a lingering terror ever-present—where will his hunger lead? Harried, without support after the boy’s father leaves, and shamed by social workers who refuse to validate her concerns, she is a single mother on the edge, disgusted by her child, and breaking under the strain of her responsibility towards Joe—a responsibility unleavened by any motherly affection.
The horror elements of Hungry Joe are strong and will satisfy pure genre-lovers, with viscerally disgusting sequences and familiar beats of dread and tension. But, while Joe’s actions eventually deliver the film to a finale that is more clearly horror, the majority of the film’s 22min runtime leans heavily on the Social Realism side of the equation. Laura is not dissimilar from the mothers we’ve seen in non-genre films such as How Was Your Day?, Caroline, or Andrea Arnold’s career-breaking short film Wasp—flawed, but more pertinently, desperate. They are isolated women lacking social support.
Hungry Joe is more sweeping than the latter two examples though which dramatize a single indelible day in the lives of their protagonist. Here, Holbrook and Dawes lead viewers on a guided tour of the British bureaucracy, as Laura fails to receive support at a series of institutions: the health system, the school system, and social services. An undercurrent of class prejudice is present throughout, as at every turn aspersions on Laura’s parenting are dispensed by outsiders. A scene with a childbirth consultant within the first minute of the film foregrounds what Laura will encounter throughout Joe’s childhood when, complaining about the discomfort of Joe’s obsessive feeding, the nurse lectures her that breastfeeding “…is a huge part of the bonding process, but, if you don’t feel capable…”. The subtext of the scene, delivered via her tone and facial expression, is not about listening and assuaging Laura’s concerns, but about putting the onus of responsibility back onto her, a dismissiveness that betrays her fundamental doubts about Laura’s fitness as a mother, an attitude that is rooted in class.”
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Reproduced on this channel with the permission of the filmmakers.