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Lavender creepy enough to keep things interesting

Abbie Cornish stars in haunted tale from Canadian director Ed Gass-Donnelly
Abbie Cornish resists the urge to overplay a familiar character in Ed Gass-Donnelly’s Lavender. The Canadian filmmaker also uses the music of Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld to great effect.

Lavender. Directed and co-written by Ed Gass-Donnelly. Starring Abbie Cornish. Rating: 6 (out of 10)
In psychological thriller Lavender, Abbie Cornish stars as a woman whose childhood trauma is coaxed out of repressed memory after a car accident leaves her with a nasty bump on the head.

Directed and co-written (with Colin Frizzell) by Canadian Ed Gass-Donnelly (Small Town Murder Songs, The Last Exorcism Part II), the film is rife with cliches but compensated with rich creepy textural details and one or two bends in the narrative, just enough to keep things interesting.

Cornish plays Jane, a photographer obsessed by old, abandoned rural homes, “epitaphs” of their former residents. One day she stumbles on a house that is unnervingly familiar, making her ever more scattered and prone to hearing things. That doesn’t help the already strained relationship with her husband Alan (Diego Klattenhoff, Homeland) and a young daughter, whom she consistently forgets to pick up from school.  

Running late to pick up Alice (Lola Flanery) again, Jane swerves to avoid a ghostly figure from her past and wakes up in a hospital room with amnesia, triggered in part by a decades-old brain injury.

Things are pretty “fuzzy” before her upbringing in foster care but we got a taste of it in the film’s opening intro, a series of artsy, grisly tableaux from 1985 that seem to suggest that Jane murdered her entire family.

A doctor (Justin Long) suggests that a trip back to the family homestead may stimulate old memories, so she goes. Alan belittles her fears, so they stay overnight. (Alan is nothing if not a model of bad fatherly decision).  Jane meets an uncle she never knew she had (Dermot Mulroney) who has been working the fields for 20 years and can share precious little about her mother and father. She receives intermittent ribbon-tied packages with reminders of her past: a toy, a music-box ballerina, a ripped photograph. She is also haunted by hallucinations of her sister, something she seems to share with Alice, who seems resigned to the fact that mommy will hurt her someday. “If you did bad things and you don’t remember, are they still part of who you are?”

For her part, Cornish resists the urge to overplay a familiar character: no need for a Scream Queen when a determined – albeit increasingly demented – heroine will do nicely, thank you.

Narrative plotholes are carefully circumnavigated and the ghost story does provide an unexpected thread or two as Jane wrestles with her past. Extra points to Gass-Donnelly for setting most of his scares during the daytime; even some of the familiar conventions of the genre (mazes, kids’ lullabies, terror-fraught cornfields) seem fresh in the light of day.