We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsey, 2011)

What's it about? Based on the best-selling novel by Lionel Shriver, it is the story of Eva (Tilda Swinton), once a successful, carefree travel writer, now a shell-shocked, reclusive figure haunted by the actions of her teenage son Kevin, who has been imprisoned for committing a terrible crime. Guilt-stricken because she never bonded maternally with him, Eva cannot stop wondering if it was his nature or her nurture that led him to do such a thing.

Is it any good? Very good and should be mandatory viewing for anyone who thinks being a parent is all fluffy bunnies and soft-focus photos. As we flick in non-linear fashion between scenes of Eva's pre-family life, child-rearing years, the day of the crime and the hellish aftermath, we experience Eva's frustration, anger, guilt and despair as she tries to cope with the actions of the child she has brought into the world. Contented little baby, this ain't. Given the crime he eventually commits, it seems obvious that Kevin is pure evil - you may be half-expecting The Omen music to start playing at certain moments. But the film is subtler than that. Was Kevin really such a bad child? Or is his bad behaviour exaggerated because we are viewing it retrospectively through the eyes of Eva, who may not be the most reliable narrator? In fact, perhaps Kevin is more like her than she would like to admit? Can she ever be sure that she didn't make him turn out the way he did? Herein lies the moral ambiguity of the film, which questions whether Eva's own traits and resentful attitude to her unplanned baby might have contributed to his personality. It is this interesting central conceit, in addition to the unconventional narrative structure, which separates it from standard 'demon child' films.

All this is anchored by a superbly brittle performance from Tilda Swinton (don't expect to see her popping up in any Mothercare ads any time soon), whilst the distinctive soundtrack, which places Jonny Greenwood's uneasy chords alongside jaunty pop-tunes and mournful ballads, complements the jagged presentation of the images. There are some missteps ; the symbolic use of the colour red is rather overdone, as is the recurring shots of hand-washing (okay - we get it). Despite this, however, most people will find it a superior arthouse psychological thriller. For any parents battling with a 'terrible twos' stage, potty-training or sulky teenage children, it'll be more unnerving and horrifying than a hundred conventional horrors. Next time your darling child draws on the wall or throws their food or proclaims loudly 'You're not the boss of me!', consider they might not turn out exactly the way you dreamed. And it might be all your fault....

Anything else I should know? Despite its success, it wasn't long before Lionel Shriver was criticised for writing the book when it became common knowledge that she was a woman (she changed her name from Margaret Ann when she was 15 to reflect her tomboy nature) and had no children herself. "How dare she!?", trumpeted veteran mothers everywhere. "She doesn't know, man, she wasn't there, man!". But much of the praise for the novel (and now film) was because it dared to suggest that parenting (and motherhood in particular) may not come naturally and may not be as rewarding as people would have you believe. A related article carried in the New York magazine entitled "All Joy and No Fun : Why parents hate parenting" explains that a wide range of research consistently shows that parents are less happy than their childless peers, which is in direct contrast to the common consensus that having children is the ultimate joy in life. Makes for some interesting reading if you have a minute or two spare amongst all the child-rearing, as does this piece. Incidentally, Irish readers might be interested to know that Shriver lived in Belfast for several years, reporting on The Troubles, and talks about that experience here.

What does the Fonz think? Did nobody think to call Gina Ford or Supernanny? On second thoughts, not even Eva and Kevin deserved to have those two harpies inflicted on them.

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