Like boats and child murder? Do we have a movie for you

The condemned: Don’t Grow Up (2015)

The plot: A fairly standard-issue horror premise, six teens living in a group home for troubled youth wake up one morning to find that their supervisor has taken off during the night, leaving them alone. After breaking into the various offices and goofing around, they decide to head into town to shoplift some beers from a convenience store that one of them, May (Natifa Mai), works at. They become wary when the town seems empty, but after May runs into their supervisor and he attacks her in a frenzy, they realize some sort of virus has infected all adults, transforming them into violent zombies that try to kill any young people in sight. Another of their group is bludgeoned to death before they can escape.

Fleeing into the woods (thanks to a middle-schooler pulling up in a car, an act of benevolence no middle-schooler in history has ever or would ever perform), they attempt to make their way to a boat one of the teens, Liam (McKell David), says is on his father’s property, with the intent to motor off in hopes of discovering safety, á la the end of the Dawn Of The Dead remake. Weirdly, at no point does anyone say, “Hey, our plan is just like the one at the end of the Dawn Of The Dead remake!”

Over-the-top box copy: “Eerily beautiful effects. Grisly thrills.” Having now watched the movie, I can confirm the latter half of this claim is true.

The descent: Normally, an English-language film in an easily marketable genre with a simple hook wouldn’t take three years to make it to our shores. But for whatever reason, Don’t Grow Up was available only in the rest of the world until now, despite the fact that Americans like to watch teenagers get murdered by psychotic, bloodthirsty adults as much as any other country. A French-Spanish co-production, starring U.K. actors and filmed in Finland and the Canary Islands, is already a pretty international situation, so it’s anyone’s guess what led to the years-long delay. But that odd gap in release time, along with the thematically rich concept—adults are literally evil, and becoming one is a horrifying transformation—are what got me intrigued enough to check it out for Home Video Hell. Perhaps it sucked so much that none of the people involved wanted it to see American shores?

The theoretically heavenly talent: This is a true no-name operation, par for the course when it comes to low-budget horror. French director Thierry Poiraud doesn’t exactly have a sparkling filmography (primarily comedy-horror silliness like Goal Of The Dead), and I didn’t recognize any of the actors, although I had apparently seen one of them in an episode of Marcella. This is the first film for half of the main ensemble, and Darren Evans—the only one of the bunch that has had notable parts in a number of American works, including Galavant and The Bastard Executioner, and smaller roles in films like The Fifth Estate—has decided to stick to the genre “Shows And Movies I’ve Never Seen.”

The execution: Don’t Grow Up is a serviceable enough horror film, though not one I’d give a terrribly enthusiastic recommendation. At 81 minutes, it’s the epitome of “a fine way to kill 81 minutes,” with a few good moments and some interesting visuals here and there. But its pacing is often slack, see-sawing between horror and generic teen relationship drama. So let’s talk about the parts that are really worth seeing, starting with the most unsettling and brutal one I’ve seen in a while.

For a long time, “kids don’t die on screen” was an unofficial rule of thumb, even for particularly gruesome or violent horror. Sure, there were a few exceptions to this state of affairs—usually gonzo horror like 1976’s Who Can Kill A Child?, where violating the taboo was the whole point—but they were few and far between, even when you thought they weren’t. (To wit: You don’t actually see the kid in Pet Sematary die, even though the film does a good job of making you think you did.) In recent years, the taboo has started to wane, with movies like The Children and Hostel 2 featuring adorable little moppets getting straight-up murdered in front of our eyes.

And in that regard, Don’t Grow Up has a child’s death that is genuinely dark and unsettling, above and beyond other recent examples of killing youth on screen. The two aforementioned examples both featured the deaths of children depicted as evil, or at least complicit in evil. The little girl who meets her demise at the end of the first act of this film is wholly innocent, as far as the audience is aware. Bastian (Fergus Riordan), a shy and withdrawn member of the group who slowly bonds with the troubled Pearl (Madeleine Kelly), decides to explore one of the seemingly empty apartment buildings in the center of town when they first arrive to shoplift beer, as yet unaware of the danger. He eventually comes upon a jammed door, open just wide enough for him to see a little girl sitting in her mother’s arms. When he asks what’s happened, the girl quietly warns him off disturbing her apparently unconscious parent: “They’re all bad. The grown-ups.” Unfortunately, that was enough noise to wake the mother: She comes to, glassy-eyed and growling, and tightens her grip around the girl, slowly pulling her back and forth until... she isn’t.

[Note: The clip below includes the entirety of the scene just described. —ed.]

I don’t care if you’re a horror fan whose senses have been dulled by years of enjoying onscreen brutality, that is one raw fucking child-death scene. If nothing else, Don’t Grow Up earns its place in the killing-kids pantheon—a weird honorarium for a genre where death is expected, but fitting nonetheless.

It’s certainly more compelling than watching kids be dicks. And here’s part of the double-edged sword of problems when making movies about teenagers: If some of them don’t act appropriately asshole-ish, then it feels false and cheap. But if you do have them acting like real-life teens—i.e., like assholes—well, that’s not necessarily much fun to watch, either. Exhibit A of the latter would be Liam, the alpha bro of this crew who was already kind of a shit before the adult-killer apocalypse, but afterwards behaves as though he’s trying to audition for his school yearbook’s “Most Likely To Be Abandoned By His Friends To Die Because He’s So Obnoxious.” Here he is being told to get some water for his seriously injured girlfriend, to which he responds poorly:

The other character relationships aren’t much better. The movie fails the Bechdel test miserably, as the two girls only seem capable of arguing over the boys in the group, and the general tone of the interactions with the rest is somewhere between “boring teens whining” and “annoying teens being jerks,” with Pearl and Bastian’s burgeoning affections providing some thin romantic frisson. But nobody seems to be under any illusions that there’s much of interest here beyond watching kids die, and in that respect, the film delivers. Beyond the hardcore little-girl murder, our heroes also lose some people along the way. For example, amiable dimwit Shawn seems to succumb to the adult rage-virus, and following a night spent hiding out at a house in the woods, the others discover he’s taken May hostage into a car, only for things to quickly go south.

Similarly, and arguably more bold still simply for having an even younger kid be the killer, is the subsequent death of Liam, who gets his just deserts at the hands of the very middle-schooler who drove up and rescued them earlier in the movie. It seems our protagonists are right on the cusp of adulthood, and part of the charge of the premise is seeing how the younger kids view their older counterparts—the former group possessing the ability to sense when one of the characters is crossing the threshold into what passes for “adulthood,” at least when it comes to being infected by the virus. R.I.P., Liam. (Also, there’s something a little absurdist and fun in seeing a boy barely in the double digits running around shooting a gun and diving into a car like he’s in a John Wick film.)

Really, once they start falling, there’s not much else to the film. The deaths are punctuations in between lengthy stretches of walking, or driving, or driving then walking. There’s numerous references to getting to Liam’s father’s boat—it’s the MacGuffin that everyone keeps mentioning as a way they can escape. But it doesn’t show up until the last two minutes. There are the occasional flashbacks, but it’s a bleak and minimalist affair, until finally petering out with an ending that feels less earned than simply the place they ran out of story.

Likelihood it will rise from obscurity: Take out the brutal deaths and there’s nothing here, though you could say the same thing about roughly 90 percent of slashers, so that’s not necessarily a slight. I’d venture a guess the name might live on as a curio, part of the tiny subgenre of films with the courage to off little ones with the same gusto as most horror films have about murdering college kids or adults. That’s... something.

Damnable commentary track or special features? There’s three featurettes: a making-of mini-doc, a look at the cast and characters, and one titled, “On The Set: Languages And The Director.” The last is notable because it briefly alludes to the difficulties of an international production in which the director and his staff speak one language, the local set crew speak a second, and the actors a third. Each of the cast mentions learning a little French and Spanish as the others, in turn, gain a few small English vocabulary words, but it does make you wonder if some of the film’s shortcomings stem from an inability for the various creative leads to actually get across what they want to say. “I’ve never met a director before who can say everything he needs to in five words,” one actor says, and it speak volumes.

Alex McLevy is a writer and editor at The A.V. Club, and would kindly appreciate additional videos of robots failing to accomplish basic tasks.