‘Raging Grace’ Review: SXSW Winner Is a First-Rate Suspenser with a Sociopolitical Soul

Winner of SXSW’s narrative grand jury award, “Raging Grace” deserves ample credit both for what it is and what it is not. But it’s difficult to be much more detailed in any appraisal of this cunning thriller without prematurely releasing cats from bags. On the other hand, it is safe to say that Paris Zarcilla, the British-born Filipino writer-director here making his feature debut, does an impressive job of infusing scary movie conventions with the potent urgency of a sharply observed social critique.

Right from the start, Zarcilla generates a compelling rooting interest in his protagonist: Joy (Max Eigenmann), a single Filipina mom who’s trying to maintain a low profile while working at various housekeeping jobs — mostly for well-off folks who sound condescending even during the most innocuous conversational gambits — and saving to purchase a gray-market visa so she and Grace (Jaeden Paige Boadilla), her mischievous young daughter, can remain in London.

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Joy stoically accepts a demeaning system that allows (and, indeed, encourages) the exploitation of undocumented immigrants in her position. If she contrives to occasionally claim as temporary homes for herself and Grace the houses of clients on out-of-town trips, her actions are not signs of budding class-war rebelliousness. Rather, she comes off as an anxious mom simply trying to do right by the daughter she loves, having long ago chalked up pride as a luxury neither one of them can afford.

In all likelihood, only someone stuck in such day-to-day drudgery would refrain from asking too many questions when she’s offered what appears to be, if not a dream job, a safe refuge. So it doesn’t strain credibility to a deal-breaking degree when Joy readily accepts a gig as combination housekeeper and caregiver for Master Garrett (David Hayman), an elderly aristocrat who’s slowly dying of cancer in his gloomy (and quite dusty) secluded mansion. Mind you, the semi-comatose Garrett is in no position to do any actual hiring himself, leaving it to his haughty niece Katherine (Leanne Best) to offer Joy the job of cleaning house, cooking meals and caring for her uncle — who seems to require fistfuls of medication on a regular basis — while she’s away on business.

Again, someone in Joy’s position can’t be too choosy; she can’t work someplace where she might call undue attention to herself, and she really needs the money for that visa. Besides, although Katherine vacillates between transparently phony pleasantness (she insists, rather too aggressively, that Joy refer to her by her first name) and autocratic patronization, she isn’t the most observant person in the world, thereby enabling Joy to keep Grace hidden in her room when the niece is around, and under control (relatively speaking) when the niece isn’t.

But it doesn’t take long before Zarcilla begins to elevate the undercurrents of mounting dread with a few jump-scares (some funny, some not), followed by nightmares and apparitions that recall scenes from Roger Corman’s long-ago Edgar Allen Poe adaptations in which Vincent Price or Ray Milland would be startled by creepy sights and sounds.

Despite all of that, however, Joy and Grace are reluctant to leave because their options are limited. “Raging Grace” strikes a skillful balance of sociopolitical commentary and conventional yet effective spooky stuff, and maintains that equilibrium after Zarcilla flips the script in regard to motivations and assumptions.

Eigenmann is exceptionally adept at vividly conveying the full range of Joy’s desperation and resilience, along with the sheer willpower it must require for someone with the character’s obvious intelligence to maintain an unthreatening air of meek subservience. (A nice touch: The fleeting hint that she acquired invaluable knowledge about medicine during some previous, better-paying employment.) Her scenes with the well-cast Boadilla resound with the solid ring of truth, particularly when it’s clear that the loving mom is being driven close to crazy by her daughter’s ill-timed pranks. As for other members of the cast — well, let’s just say that they’re good enough to surprise you even when they’re fulfilling your worst suspicions.

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