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Sundance 2021 Review: 'The Blazing World' is a visually stunning debut

Carlson Young’s 'The Blazing World' is defined by its lawless filmmaking approach that is a gorgeous display of pronounced and personal "Wonderland" filmmaking.

Seeing red in 'The Blazing World.'
(Image: © Greenbelt Films)

Our Verdict

'The Blazing World' is a searing feature debut behind the camera for Carlson Young, with knockout visual prowess and the kind of maverick neon-bright attitude that pulls you through the screen's barrier.

For

  • 🔑 Exquisite framing, color palettes, and cinematography.
  • 🔑 Splashy and confident.
  • 🔑 Production details are enviously ripe.

Against

  • 🔑 Dialogue lyricism can trail off.
  • 🔑 At times stuck in its own methods.
  • 🔑 Divisive is an understatement.

The Blazing World is part of our Sundance 2021 coverage. You can find all of our reviews here.

The Blazing World synthesizes any film critic’s quick-describer definition of Sundance’s midnighter mold into an acid tablet pushed as “Malice In Wonderland” or “Alice’s Reclamation,” wordplay based on thematic representation. Carlson Young’s feature debut, an expansion of her lauded short origin, is boldly bounce-about and sensationally confident, birthed of a sumptuous pretty-in-pink vision that devours the screen. Young's formidable fantasy reimagines the simplest of tragedy arcs through a vibrantly pigmented looking glass like a peacock’s plume that spans rainbow patterns. The disclaimer here is either you’re full-immersion in, or coldly left out as Young charges into her dreamworld’s freeness at ramming speeds, based on aesthetic influences that range Tarsem Singh to John Waters.

Young stars as Margaret Winter, a presumed college student whose psyche was forever fractured when sister Lizzy drowned in the Winters’ swimming pool during her childhood years. Margaret’s asked to return home since sullen mother Alice (Vinessa Shaw), and cantankerous alcoholic father Tom (Dermot Mulroney) are selling their estate. Memories of the incident come flooding back - Alice’s distanced demeanor, Tom’s unpredictable drunken outbursts - but Margaret must return. Even though a gatekeeper dubbed Lained (Udo Kier) may or may not have whisked Margaret into an alternate reality where Lizzy is rescuable. If anything, her voyage back to where Lained first appeared (the backyard where Lizzy died) should answer Margaret’s unearthly questions in totality.

It’s Margaret’s Alice In Wonderland, allowing the still-obviously-unhealed woman to abandon reality and confront the darkest recesses of her mind through extravagant symbolism or metaphors. The Blazing World could rigidly maneuver a grieving daughter around parents who’ve chosen destructive coping methods, but how droll. Young creativity adapts Lewis Caroll’s brand of puff-pass-poetic literature to emphasize the hiding places humans create, thrusting Margaret into an alternate dimension with bark-skinned demons, crimson firefly navigators, and literal keys that counteract the pains of repression. From square one, Young makes a statement about the limitlessness of imagination when finding your filmmaking voice, especially by highlighting how familiar narratives can become unrecognizable under the supervision of those gambling on ambition.

In fairness, The Blazing World is a gamble. It can feel like Margaret is imprisoned within a simulation since tattooed, songstress characters (hello, Soko) waltz with or without introductions or boundlessness keeps surging forward sans audience approval. Young is quick to remind us that our physical restrictions do not inhibit Margaret, whether that’s slithers under satin bed sheets or Lained looming in the background, but her narrative’s lyrical non-sequitur structure is strictly indebted to the “Wonderland” aesthetic. No safeguards nor splashes of water like an icy blast that recalibrates senses. One minute Margaret’s car is stop-motion driving home, the next her father glowers a menace out of something "Jordan Peelian;" then we’re glimpsing Lained as he strokes Margaret’s face, while she lays connected to bubblegum-pastel IV bags in a matching wash over of her bedroom. 

Young never ceases dragging us deeper into madness, and you may find yourself kicking and screaming if you’re not vibing with such “artistic,” what some may wrongly label “pretentious,” expressionism. Welcome to Sundance.

Alternatively, expect a photogenic, dazzling composition of sound, sight, and emotion. Isom Innis’ original score frolics hand-in-hand with The Blazing World, stepping in rhythm through orchestral crescendos that either punctually juxtapose or profoundly accentuate the events on screen. Sound design is even better, as synthy thumps or static bursts work to distress viewers when Young desires us to feel unsafe or unsettled. Rodney Becker’s production design astounds as Margaret’s world shiftily transforms, whether that be a treehouse nightclub venue named “The Woods” or Margaret’s firetruck-red-lit architectural ghost of a manor that’s, now in her world, barren except for brittle overgrowth and branches gone wild instead of inhabitation. Then add Shane F. Kelly’s cinematography as the camera glides in an unconscious state and draws the most candy-coated, delightfully whimsical hues from a movie that might as well take place in the Gumdrop Forest. What do you get? A tickled-transcendent collaboration of talents that’s en-vogue, saccharine-sweet, and establishes world building in a fraction of the time most other films require.

Then again, this is always Carlson Young’s passionate grappling of heartache, internal forgiveness, and external compassion in the face of eternal dread, depression, or even conjured evil. The Blazing World is prolific with its visual, music-video-y (but not detrimentally) storytelling, if ludicrous in its shackles-shed conception. The problem is, either you're transfixed by, say, bloody-faced Dermot Mulroney exposing the toxic side-effects of masculinity and bottling emotions, or left struggling to decipher why Vinessa Shaw is now serving granular tea in her sandy-dune garden shack to her MMORPG protagonist offspring. It’s earnest, yet uncontrollable; cathartically captivating, yet carelessly whispers unsubtle messages. Young is her own mightiest ally and worst enemy, in these cases - but I’d rather champion something that swings this grand than less inspired “equals” with safer, straightforward representations. Let wispy, bare-all chaos reign supreme.