Blaze Review: A Vivid And Imaginative Portrait Of Processing Trauma [London Film Festival]

Blaze (Julia Savage) is a young teenager with an incredibly artistic mind. She's content in her own world, opting to spend time by herself making things with her own two hands rather than go out and socialize. One day, Blaze heads to a corner store to get some ice cream, but on the way home, she witnesses a woman being brutally assaulted. It's an unspeakably awful thing for anyone to witness, especially a 12-year-old. Blaze is paralyzed with fear and unable to fully process the event. Noticeably different when she gets home, her father Luke (Simon Baker) gets Blaze to open up about what she saw.

That leads to uncomfortable situations at the police station, where Blaze is forced to open up about the horrors she witnessed. Luke wants to do everything in his power to help Blaze, which turns her world further upside down, becoming immersed in the world of child psychologists who try to help her process the trauma she has undergone. No matter who tries to help her, Blaze finds the most comfort and safety in the recesses of her own imagination, particularly in the form of Zephyr, an imaginary dragon that's been a huge part of Blaze's life since childhood.

Blaze's behavior becomes increasingly erratic, and efforts to medicate her and try and psychoanalyze her frequently come up empty. Pills she's prescribed dull her feelings of anguish, but they also stifle her creativity, so she starts hiding pills in her figurines, which brings back her more creative energy. There's a constant struggle between Blaze and her father, who's desperate to help her, and can feel his daughter slipping away no matter what he does.

Zephyr is an enormous creature that takes over Blaze's room — he's colorful, with lots of pink hues, and he's made of plenty of different fabrics and textures. It's a striking design that contrasts the extremely difficult subject matter of "Blaze," the feature debut of Del Kathryn Barton. Zephyr's make-up is brilliant and indicative of how a girl like Blaze would create something — it looks amazing (and brought to life by puppetry) and also like it comes directly from the mind of a creative young girl.

A challenging but worthwhile experience

As you can imagine from the description, "Blaze" isn't easy viewing. It's a tough, uncompromising film, but it's also incredibly beautiful, and every bit as creative as Blaze herself, implementing live-action, animation, puppetry, and visual effects to create something that feels genuinely original. You don't need me to tell you how incredibly difficult that sort of thing is to find these days. Barton establishes herself as a dynamic and unique filmmaker, drawing from her experience as an artist focusing on psychedelic fantasy. Those elements are expertly channeled into "Blaze." It's hard to shake the feeling that this is a really special film, unique in the way it dives into its protagonist's psyche with love and respect, but also boundless creativity.

There are so many films about assault and trauma, and how people process it, and "Blaze" isn't looking to solve childhood trauma, or come up with any solutions to the awful fact that so many people, especially women, are attacked in society. It offers a strong, subtle criticism of how the powers that be uphold legal structures that allow people that perpetuate crimes to go without punishment. But instead of trying to solve things (that's an impossible task, and if the film tried to tackle this it would tell its personal impact), it's keen to understand trauma and empathize with it, with creates a profound, humanistic experience.

"Blaze" can feel disjointed at times, like it's struggling to put all its vast, highly creative pieces together. That's something that can be frustrating — and it does feel like that here — but it actually works in the film's favor. The film is ultimately a reflection of what it's like to have your innocence taken from you, and the journey to untangle incredibly complicated feelings — and especially how those things are amplified in the mind of a child. Naturally, a lot of those feelings would be confused, and yes, disjointed. Even the film's flaws like a purposeful reflection of a child's psyche. Whether that is something that makes for a watchable movie is up for debate, but I found myself completely enraptured in Blaze's world.

Visual splendor and a powerhouse performance

Part of that is thanks to a sensational performance from Julia Savage. Anchoring your film on the performance of a child actor is always a significant risk, but Savage is a revelation. It's such a singular performance — it's raw, intimate, and startling. For a young actress, everything she does feels so genuine and true to form, channeling some very complex emotions and experiences into a magnificent portrayal of Blaze. Savage is a consummate professional, and I can't wait to see what's in her future, as it's going to be incredibly bright.

"Blaze" takes challenging subject matter and refuses to back down from it. It's a film that explores what happens when your innocence is suddenly lost, and the journey to try and reclaim it, even if that may be impossible. It's also a film about being unafraid to explore your feelings, no matter how difficult that may be. "Blaze" is bold, striking, visionary cinema that makes for an astonishing debut. Its magnificent blend of puppetry, animation, and visual effects allows it to stand out from the crowd, but it also allows for an impressive interrogation of the human mind, delivered with tremendous empathy. A counselor tells Blaze, "I find it's better to just feel it," also telling her that "healing isn't linear." These are powerful ideas that speak not only to Blaze, but the audience as well. This film is one of the great surprises of 2022, a remarkably assured and effective debut that will stay with you for ages after the credits have rolled.

/Film Rating: 9.5 out of 10

Blaze screened as part of the London Film Festival 2022.