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‘Queen of Bones’ Review: Twins Navigate a Series of Tepid Travails During the Great Depression

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Religious hysteria, family secrets and a tinge of the occult make hard times all the harder for protagonists in “Queen of Bones.” This Ontario-shot U.S. indie production is a rural gothic with echoes of both “Flowers in the Attic’s” dark YA melodrama and “Carrie’s” supernaturally vengeful coming of age. But it lacks the bold ideas and execution to approach those stories’ impact, winding up an underwhelming if watchable exploration of familiar themes and character types. Falling Forward Films plans a theatrical release for later this year, though this mild thriller would seem likelier to find an audience in home formats.

Its title oddly prefaced by “Folktales of the Great Depression…,” as if part of a series, Michael Burgner’s screenplay has a chaptered progress whose portentous divisions (“Prologue: It Began With Blood,” “Chapter Seven: Domain of Darkness,” etc.) promise content considerably more shocking than we actually get. Lillian (Julia Butters) and Samuel (Jacob Tremblay) are 14-year-old twins living in woodsy 1931 Oregon isolation under the thumb of stern widowed father Malcolm Brass (Martin Freeman). He seldom stops reminding them their mother died in childbirth so they might live — although eventually they’ll come to doubt that tale.  

Sam resents this patriarch’s heavy-handed rule, dreaming of escape. Yet it’s devout, obedient Lily who proves the more formidable challenger to parental authority — as Pa evidently anticipates, since he’s awfully eager to send her off to a convent. (An instrument maker, he flatly turns down a musical conservatory official’s offer to enroll gifted violinist Lily.) That curious haste is reinforced by the mechanizations of Taylor Schilling as Ida May, a comely local woman who clearly hopes to be the next Mrs. Brass. As a result, the quarrelsome yet inseparable siblings realize their time together is running out. 

Shared rebelliousness is fueled further by the arrival of a trunk containing some of their late mother’s things, which had been stored by her newly deceased father. Attending his funeral in town, Malcolm faces the undiluted wrath of a mother-in-law (Patricia Phillips) who still blames him for taking her daughter to the backcountry — where, it’s suggested, she fell into some sort of evil pagan mischief. This is borne out by the trunk’s contents, which the teens (defying dad’s strict orders) discover include a hand-written book of spells and symbols like those they’ve found carved into trees nearby. Under imminent threat of forced exile, Lily begins exercising uncanny powers inherited from the parent whose fate wasn’t exactly what she and her brother have been told. 

Director Robert Budreau, best known previously for a couple fact-based Ethan Hawke vehicles (“Stockholm,” “Born to Be Blue”), makes an effort at period flavor here that begins with the near-square aspect ratio and muted color palette of cinematographer Andre Pienaar’s imagery. But despite such decent-enough design contributions, the principal actors never quite convince as characters of the given time and place, or as a family. Worse, there just isn’t sufficient atmosphere or suspense worked up to punch across a narrative meant both to indict religious hypocrisy and instill fear toward a rumored “witch in the woods.” 

Without much in the way of psychological depth, or potency to its fantastical elements, “Queen of Bones” makes a pretty tepid overall impression, given the expectations raised by its basic themes. On the plus side, it may work for some, primarily younger viewers simply as a tale of teens kicking against adult oppression, who welcome the murkily developed supernatural angle as a nod to favored genre terrain. Those who take the “folk horror” billing in earnest, however, are likely to be irked by these 90 minutes feeling tonally closer to an “Afterschool Special” than even the constrained thrills of a PG-13 frightfest.