Tweendom — a category spawned in lurid pastels for lucrative marketing purposes — has only intensified since the aughts of Hannah Montana and Jojo Siwa. “Tween discourses focus especially on girls,” claimed children’s studies scholar Tyler Bickford in 2016, “for whom the boundary between childhood innocence and adolescent or adult independence is fraught with moral panic around sexuality.” Dethroning the bubbly, polychromatic YouTube legions of yore, today’s tween TikTokers feign teenage status years in advance, as digitally savvy as they are strategically duck-faced.
When packaged and sold in such a polished, antiseptic way, the unsettling, messy, and totally uncontrollable biological process of “becoming a woman” can be entirely bypassed. Hatching — Hanna Bergholm’s stunningly original debut film and Sundance gem — dares to do the opposite: embrace the experience of female adolescence as the monster that it is, and then give that monster literal wings. In what may be the first body horror film to boast a 12-year-old heroine, Hatching presents a bird’s eye view of the terrors of tween puberty.
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The film opens within an excessively frilly suburban home reminiscent of a LoveShackFancy spread, in which Tinja (Siiri Solalinna) poses for a Youtube video with her manicured mother (Sophia Heikkilä), docile father (Jani Volanen), and clingy little brother, Matias (Oiva Ollila). When their gauzy charade is disrupted by a raucous crow — knocking over and shattering the comically fragile décor — Tinja calmly apprehends the bird, wrapping it in a mauve towel, only for her mother to break its neck. “Put this out with the organic waste,” Tinja is told, her blue eyes wide with shock.
Seeking out the dying crow in the nearby woods, Tinja rescues a lone egg from its nest, stuffing it inside a giant teddy bear that shares her bed. Blonde, gangly, and reptile-thin in her gymnast leotard, Tinja is no typical Finnish “final girl” — and Solalinna’s expressive range exceeds genre expectations. While eager to please and demure to a fault, something darker — and fiercer — resides in the girl’s limber frame. Ostracized by classmates for her self-serious demeanor, she takes comfort in tending to her shell-bound companion. “Everything’s okay. I’m going to take care of you,” she assures the egg, its heartbeat audible.
Nourished by Tinja’s attention and anxious tears, the egg expands daily, finally birthing a gooey and gnarled baby bird. Hilariously homely, but not unlovable, the embryonic fledgling enjoys loofah baths and has an ET-like penchant for clasping her guardian’s hand. Tinja turns her white armoire into a dress-filled birdcage, securing the doors with a thick pink ribbon. But as it matures, the bird, whom Tinja calls “Alli,” starts to creepily resemble her human caregiver — talons replaced by painted nails, flaxen tresses sprouting from its down.
When the bull dog next door bites Tinja through the fence, Alli reveals her brutal instincts. “Mother! Tinja is a monster!” Matias shrieks, dumping the dog’s dismembered body on the coffee table. Feral, jealous, and erratic, the bird is essentially Tinja’s id; her acts of violence are prompted by all of the resentment she suppresses in her attempt to perform passive femininity.
Meanwhile, “Mother” is too busy to notice, restaging a video for her social media followers titled “Lovely Everyday Life,” featuring matching flower crowns and slow-mo family romps across the lawn. “I’m a woman with two children and one man,” she jests to her selfie-stick, Bergholm wryly mocking “momfluencer” affect as she indicts the desire for an airbrushed life. “My toes aren’t pointed,” Tinja frets at footage of an acrobatic routine her mother is about to post. “I’ll crop the video so they don’t show,” is the curt response.
Like Ari Aster’s Midsommar, Hatching is overwhelmingly blanched in light — and all the more scary for it. Tinja dons white eyelet dresses throughout almost the entire film; her brother and father match in blue polos and khakis. But the nuclear unit is not what it seems. Treating Tinja like a gal-pal, her mother divulges about Tero (Reino Nordin), the handyman she gives hand jobs on the sly. “Remember, this is between us girls,” her mother winks from her lacy canopy. During a later share session, she confides, “This is the first time in my life I feel like I really love someone.” Tinja’s face crumples — and Alli’s vindictive feathers stir down the hallway.
As the tally of maimed bodies multiplies, Tinja tries — and fails — to stop her avian doppelganger, masochistically taking Alli’s punishment out on herself. In the process, not-so-subtle references to eating disorders abound: Tinja binges on birdseed and throws it up to feed the bird, feasting later on a half-grapefruit that her mother ceremoniously photographs. “You look thin, you’ve lost weight,” her mother observes, pinching her upper arm approvingly as Tinja stares at her tablecloth.
In a distinctly feminist way, Bergholm begs the question of what’s more terrifying — a cursed crow or a social-media-obsessed mother, a demonic bird-girl or an army of tweens in taut ponytails and robin-egg uniforms? “Don’t do it, Alli, don’t do it,” Tinja pleads at a gymnastics meet, visualizing her clone committing acts of carnage several towns away.
Indistinguishable by the final scene, Alli and Tinja face off with each other in a showdown for the ages. “What … what was that?” her mother demands, as Alli screeches away. “I … I hatched it,” Tinja confesses. “I just want it to go away.” Whether what she has “hatched” is her sexual self or rebellious volition, it’s clear that “it” is dangerous, a gesture to the physical — and emotional — burden of womanhood. “I don’t want you! Nobody wants you!” Tinja screams at her twin, crouched before her with a lacerated maw.
As moving as it is, at times, revolting, Hatching mines both the timeless tropes of female adolescence and the harrowing new standards of self-presentation that millions of tweens face today. The creature hiding in the dark doesn’t have to drip blood from its beak. It could be a pubescent girl aiming for ghastly perfection.
Hatching is currently in theaters.