‘Hoard’ Review: An Audacious, Unsettling British Debut Announces a Singular Directing Talent

In 1996, the British band Suede – or The London Suede as they’re known in the United States, thanks to a trademark lawsuit – released their third album, “Coming Up”, which opened with the song “Trash”. A catchy, breezy anthem for the downtrodden trying to find love and excitement in monotonous or outright dirty environments, “Trash” posits the potential for rebellion and individuality in stale English suburbia, where bonds of solidarity can form among people drawn to each other due to shared outsider status: “But we’re trash, you and me/ We’re the litter on the breeze/ We’re the lovers on the street.”

With its motif concerning garbage on the street, “Trash” could have been an all-too obvious needle drop in “Hoard”, a (mostly) mid-90s period piece set in the exact sort of humdrum British milieu evoked by Suede, with literal refuse playing a major part in the strange connection between two unconventional people reckoning with their troubled beginnings.

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Since “Hoard” explicitly takes place in 1994, self-taught writer-director Luna Carmoon, making her feature debut, avoids the anachronistic song choice — as well as anything by the band Garbage, before you ask. But stretches of her film play as though the lyrics of “Trash” might be the misguided internal monologue of at least one of its two central characters. In the surrounding movie, any moments of beauty and cheer are laced with an ever-present sense of dread and volatility. That rare thing nowadays of a genuinely audacious, unnerving British debut, Carmoon’s film can be as messy as its title might imply, but its uncompromising tale of repressed trauma and grief intertwined with burgeoning sexuality announces major new talents in both its mastermind filmmaker and star Saura Lightfoot Leon, also making her feature debut.

With Charlotte Wells’ “Aftersun,” Michael Caton-Jones’ “Our Ladies,” and now “Hoard,” a 1990s setting is proving fertile ground for compelling coming-of-age tales about girls and young women from the UK. But before we go back to the 90s in Carmoon’s film, we must first go back to the 80s. As we’re shown a metal shopping cart spinning round and round, perhaps slightly too speedy narration from Lightfoot Leon’s character, Maria, informs us that she murdered her mother. Or at least their “catalogue of love” killed her. She implies that in her present timeline, she’s been following traces of her mother in smells and in objects, having allowed grief to disguise these remnants of an unconditional love. “That thing we did was always the thing that recorded our lives,” she says. “The longer we went without each little thing we collected, we worried the love would trickle and dry out.”

Cut to 1984 for an example of what Maria means. Her younger self (Lily-Beau Leach) and her mother, Cynthia (Hayley Squires), spend their evenings on pilgrimages across South East London, collecting various discarded items like magpies – from cutlery and electric fans found outside charity donation hubs to bin bags sitting on the street for the garbage men. Anything left out can be wheeled across town in their shopping cart to become a souvenir for their ‘nest’ at home, which takes the form of various mountains of mess across the majority of their house.

When Maria returns home from school every day, her mother insists that she not throw away the orange peels and tin foil left in her lunchbox, so that it can be repurposed or simply saved. The doorway as one enters their house is a pile-up of magazine pages and envelopes, like the carpet is made of paper. Their living room television is perched precariously high alongside a stack of miscellaneous items and furniture. Mother and daughter play games where chalk is applied to cheeks like makeup. Maria’s mother says she works full time in an undisclosed job, devoting her evenings to her daughter and their unique rituals, though Maria running away from school one day and finding a frayed Cynthia still at home calls that into question. There is no sign or mention of a father, if he ever has been present in the child’s life.

The disarray of their curious existence bleeds into Maria’s attempted normalcy at school: the nocturnal collection trips mean she’s perpetually sleepy during class, she’s almost never got ironed clothes, she can never find her P.E. kit, and the stench of rubbish and rodents from their home sticks to her. Classmates and teachers make her aware of how unusual her home life is, prompting her to lash out at her mother, which leads to an accident. Following this, Maria realizes this rhythm and rhyme she and her mother share is all she wants, regardless of what other people think. But in the run-up to Christmas, a further accident sees them separated for an indefinite period, with Maria put in care with Michelle (Samantha Spiro), a woman who looks after children when their parents “need a little break”.

Roughly a quarter into the film’s runtime, a now late teens Maria (Lightfoot Leon) walks past Leach as Maria on the stairs, as the younger version vanishes from the screen and narrative. It’s been a 10-year time jump to 1994, and Maria has continued living with Michelle all this time, now referring to her as “Mum.” Energetic but flighty, Maria barely processes Michelle’s mention of a male guest coming to stay, as she heads to school for her final day. Getting too high with her best friend and neighbor, Laraib (Deba Hekmat), on the way home later, she crawls up her stairs to be greeted by a tall stranger. Word of a serial rapist on the news leads the teenager, experiencing a comedown, to request that the man do her the courtesy of removing her shoes before he rapes her, and that he takes her to the garden for the assault so that the stairs won’t remind her of it.

It’s likely the strangest introduction to someone that Michael (Joseph Quinn) has ever had, though their relationship over the following five months or so will prove even more mystifying. Rather than the so-called ‘Granny Rapist’ Michelle has warned Maria about, late 20-something Michael is in fact a young man who was once under Michelle’s care just like Maria, though his stay was much shorter, as he was taken in by a sibling — he confides to Maria that he was apparently “a crack baby.” Michael has returned to the area to secure a house with his pregnant girlfriend, Leah (Ceara Coveney), so Michelle is letting him stay with them until that housing situation is finalized.

Michael has that familiar scent of childhood pain and trauma for Maria to connect with, as well as having shared the same foster guardian, though Michael’s job as a garbage collector — where he’s not always able to get the stench away with a wash — also helps trigger some sense memories for Maria that had seemingly been repressed. And then one day, her foundations suddenly crumble. An unexpected memento of her mother is delivered to their house, and then it’s revealed on the very same day that Laraib, Maria’s rock outside of foster parent Michelle, is being sent far away as punishment for bad behavior by her strict father.

From this point, Maria descends into a form of madness, while also developing her own peculiar rituals with Michael. Some of these involve recreating the routines of her biological mother, such as the hoarding of abandoned or stolen objects, while others concern reenacting memories or physical sensations from when she was a child living in that ‘nest’ – including burning her stomach with an iron, only not by accident this time. Maria and Michael’s ‘games’ unique to them have a more animalistic quality, specifically animals in survival mode, with these experiences properly starting with a pretend bullfight brawl that abruptly becomes the world’s weirdest dry humping session.

The exact nature of the psychosexual and body horror set-pieces that follow is best left unspoiled, though it’s worth clarifying that “Hoard” does not simply become a collection of shallow gross-out moments, nor does the sensual approach to certain very dark sequences mean the film treats its matters of abuse and self-harm lightly. The tonal balancing act presented by the material is particularly tricky but, like with her previous shorts “Shagbands” (2020) and “Nosebleed” (2018), Carmoon largely nails a successful blend of the surreal co-existing with more grounded behavior and developments.

The confident, challenging feature establishes a singular talent among the current crop of emerging British filmmakers (and Carmoon is one of the youngest to get a feature made, at age 24), though you can certainly trace some DNA of Ken Russell, Nicolas Roeg, and Andrea Arnold’s “Fish Tank” (2009) in “Hoard.” You could also make a case for there being a dash of David Wnendt’s “Wetlands” (2013), in that both films are portraits of a thoroughly unhygienic sexual awakening for female misfits, though “Hoard” is (thankfully) nowhere near as extreme in content.

The sometimes-rapid shifts in tone, even within the same scene, are aided to tremendous effect by the magnetic, fearless performance from Saura Lightfoot Leon. The newcomer has a background in dance, a vital asset for a role that thrives so much on us being able to understand a complicated character through absorbing meaning from physical movements and mannerisms, when their internal logic is made so enigmatic. Virtually everything Maria does is absurd, but it’s always believable thanks to Lightfoot Leon. She is the essential anchoring force for this film of warped beauty and fantasy as survival, where the horrifying and hopeful participate in a constant battle for dominion.

Grade: B

“Hoard” premiered at the 2023 Venice Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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