Written by Assaf Bernstein
Directed by Assaf Bernstein
Maria is blossoming—but into what?
The horror genre is awash with teenagers turning into monsters; from I Was a Teenage Werewolf to The Beast Within and Ginger Snaps, puberty and the transition into adulthood make for brilliant subtexts in genre shockers. Look Away is of this ilk, but it’s more of a psychological horror with a potentially supernatural twist. Maria, played by India Eisley (Underworld Awakening), is definitely going through some big changes, but is this nature taking her normal course or something altogether more sinister? (Hint: It’s pretty sinister!)
Look Away writer/director Assaf Bernstein uses mirrors extensively throughout his story—and why wouldn’t he? There’s something primally alarming about our own reflection; the idea that we’re seeing a doppelganger double or an inversion of ourselves in a parallel yet terrifying reality. Mirrors have been regarded as portals for supernatural entities in many cultures, which is why they’re sometimes covered following the death of a loved one. Mirrors also come with layers of subtext fitting with the themes of Look Away and a teenager both frightened of and enthralled by an emerging sense of self.
The title can be taken as a warning (or even a command) to Maria, who becomes obsessed with her own reflection. Look Away from the mirror; don’t become fixated by your own image or unrealistic expectations regarding beauty and sexuality. Look Away from the mirror; don’t fret the imperfections of the person staring back at you and remember you are your own worst critic. Look Away from internal darkness and seek the lightness of the world at large. It’s easy advice to dispense, but difficult to abide—especially while enduring the hormonal ravages of adolescence.
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong about talking to yourself in the mirror, but Maria’s problems really start when her reflections start talking back. Is Airam a previously unknown aspect of Maria’s character, or a separate entity altogether? Are the mirror twins working in tandem, or does the one behind the glass harbor violent designs? Is Airam an agent of empowerment, or a dangerous usurper? Look Away will leave you with both answers and enduring questions.
Thematically, Look Away is about the dark side of perfection and chasing an unobtainable ideal. As the daughter of a plastic surgeon, Maria is acutely aware of her imperfections; it doesn’t help that her dad (played by Jason Isaacs) subjects his daughter to the same critical eye he casts upon his clients. As a birthday gift, he offers to pin and straighten her ears, shave and sculpt her nose, and perform other procedures he hopes will boost her self-esteem. While many teens would jump at the offer for free modifications, it only compounds Maria’s insecurities, paving the way for Airam to take over her life.
Look Away is often brutally honest, but it’s also almost voyeuristic in presentation. Maria is introduced as someone straddling the border between childhood and adulthood, but we see a lot of her. The “male gaze” is extremely penetrating, and it’s not clear if this is a component of the storytelling or a byproduct of established Hollywood tropes. Either way, looking at her naked seems almost like a transgression. But Maria isn’t a child anymore, and that’s the point. Whether she successfully transitions into a fully actualized adult or tumbles into Teenage Hell is a key source of tension throughout Look Away.
In Look Away, Maria is both desired and feared, denigrated and elevated in equal measure by friends, family, and peers. It reflects (pun intended) many issues today’s young women must face, making clear distinctions between sexuality and maturity that are worth taking to heart. And while the film could be a springboard into important and emotional debates, it’s a straight-up horror movie at heart. You can dismiss the subtext and symbology and still enjoy a roller coaster ride that’s mostly thrilling and often difficult to endure.
Mira Sorvino is the X-Factor in Look Away. As Amy, Maria’s mother, she serves as both a foil and a potential window into our protagonist’s future. Plagued by nightmares that are tied to her daughter’s suppressed traumas, she’s the quiet center of this emotionally devastating storm. While Airam has a villainous heart, the family’s patriarch is revealed to be an equally devastating component of this family’s disintegration.
Now available on VOD, Look Away is a deeper than average exploration of the horrors of adolescence. The storytelling elements are a bit scattered, but production and presentation are excellent. There are elements of Look Away that make it something of a spiritual successor to 2009’s The Unborn.