Carlson Young’s The Blazing World may be one of the most ambitious feature film directorial debuts of Sundance, if not of all-time.
Young, an actress most-known for her TV work in series like Scream, directs and stars in a film that finds itself buried under style while running thin on substance. But it’s not for lacking of trying, and for that, The Blazing World is a debut more to be admired than enjoyed.
Based on her own short film and co-written by Young and Pierce Brown, the retro opening credits of The Blazing World dictate the film was “inspired by Margaret Cavendish and other dreams.” Cavendish was a pioneering philosopher, playwright, scientist and the first female sci-fi fantasy author with her novel, The Blazing World, which featured the author herself as a character in an alternate plane of existence. It is clear this 1666 work had a profound effect on Young, who casts herself as the film’s lead, Margaret.
When Margaret was a girl, she witnessed the drowning of her sister, Lizzie. With two parents (Dermot Mulroney and Vinessa Shaw) who don’t seem to like each other very much, each family member has spent years coping with Lizzie’s death in various ways. For Dad, its booze, for Mom its pills and for Margaret, it’s an escape into an alternate reality world she first gained access to via a black hole guarded by Udo Kier. She is Alice, down the rabbit hole into a nightmarish and twisted fantasy world.
Beyond that, The Blazing World defies narrative structure and is almost impossible to describe the quick cuts and visions Margaret sees in its dream-like structure. It is, essentially, a movie about grief and trauma that prioritizes visual style over narrative substance. There simply isn’t enough depth behind its flashy visuals to make the movie not feel like a slog to watch.
But there’s no doubt The Blazing World is Young’s vision, as inspired by not just dreams and Cavendish’s writings but by everything from David Lynch to Pan’s Labyrinth. While not every visual effect is successful, it is remarkable what the film manages to accomplish on a micro-budget. Adding to the stunning nature of the film, is its synth-heavy score that seamlessly blends with strains of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite.
While The Blazing World doesn’t quite pull the narrative off, Young deserves credit for bringing her singular vision to life in her ambitious first film. It’ll be a wonder to see what she does behind-the-camera with a more-traditional narrative structure.