The British film industry has been producing striking debut films at an unfathomable rate over the last few years, and now that Hoard has premiered at the Venice Film Festival, we certainly can’t accuse them of all feeling the same. The London-set drama centers on Maria, who, as a child (played by Lily-Beau Leach), questions the confines of her world with her fiercely protective hoarder mother, Cynthia (Hayley Squires). After an accident that Maria believes kills her mother, the young girl grows up (now played by Saura Lightfoot Leon) under the care of an overworked, kind foster mother (Samantha Spiro).
When former foster child Michael (Stranger Things’ Joseph Quinn) intrudes on Maria’s adolescence, she lurches back towards behavior that, while unhealthy, may shed light on the dangerous love she shared with her mother.
Aggressive, off-kilter, and packing an emotional rawness that’s often sanded out of too-careful British dramas, Hoard savors the clutter and excretions of childhood trauma, more interested in destructive spirals than the calm equilibrium of healing. But while there’s a version of Hoard that could be a welcome jolt for British working-class stories, it’s unclear how from the finished product – at 126 minutes, Hoard stretches loosely mapped out psychology with a terminal lack of polish.
Director Luna Carmoon’s shorts Nosebleed and Shagbands were praised for their fresh, personal-driven voice, but the filmmaker said her experience with the doors that her work opened left a sour taste in her mouth. You can feel the bitterness and cynicism with the world in Hoard – characters spare none of their vile and unpleasant urges from the horrified eyes of those around them (or the audience – the copious spit consumption may require eyes to be covered). Carmoon still shows unadulterated empathy for her characters, especially the young, lost Maria discovering an alternative avenue of adulthood.
Lightfoot Leon shoulders the colossal demands of her role well, albeit not faultlessly. Maria’s mania is too forcibly pushed in the film’s latter stages, with Carmoon’s screenplay asking the actor to maintain a state of feverish distress that falters in the final, over-extended stretch – again, a problem that would be lessened with a shorter runtime. Still, it’s difficult to picture how a young actor could outmaneuver the faults baked into the character writing.
At least Lightfoot Leon has great chemistry with Quinn, whose lascivious but alluring presence draws out carnal behavior in both characters. Michael’s possessiveness of the young woman adds tension to the narrative – with a pregnant fiancé, he is jeopardizing his own family as well as Maria's well-being by acting irrationally with her. The volatile power he shares with and holds over Maria makes for Hoard’s most arresting, taut sequences; his sudden rescinding of affection feels sudden in a film questioning how much control Maria is able to wield in her life.
The fact that Maria, Michael, and those who orbit them tend to be shrill and unfiltered may be exhausting, but not necessarily a problem. Set in the 80s and 90s, Hoard fixates on the nuances of mental instability that were most readily excused or discriminated against without the complexity of conditions being considered (British society might not know it, but there are shades of mental illness between sectioning people and saying “they’re just a bit… you know.”) People used to act like this without meaningful help being offered to them, such was life.
Carmoon’s depiction of mental illness is not interested in raising awareness or saying “it’s okay not to be okay” – it’s an unflinching dyad of codependency and woundedness, where two characters with difficult childhoods are attracted and repelled in equal measure, captured in unsophisticated, Dogme-esque camerawork. But as the minutes wear on, the momentum stalls, and Hoard’s attempts to reach a blinding emotional catharsis feel like a film struggling through its own mounds of clutter.
Hoard depicts the unfettered symptoms of mental distress with vigor – the rituals of Cynthia and Maria’s secluded life together, Maria’s later fixation on consumption, the burrowing after-effects of sexual assault – and it’s clear Carmoon wants to reach an unorthodox but radical cinematic understanding of how coping with abusive tendencies and coming-of-age can contradict and complement each other.
But some of the earliest introduced markers of Maria’s trauma – like the rhyming ditties she and Cynthia band back and forth or referencing her mother’s hoarding as their “catalog of love” – are not revisited effectively, and the final attempts to prove how Maria finds closure feel cloying and constructed. As a photo in the film’s credits informs us, Carmoon drew from personal experience to tell Maria’s story, so it feels improper to disregard details from Hoard’s fraught dramatic relationship. Still, like many of Hoard’s problems, the details do not add up to a story of commanding power, despite how urgent and furious the elements may be.
Hoard may be better received in the context of Britain’s new wave of debuts (even though it’s half an hour longer than all of them), but struggles to stand upright on its own merits. The messiness of Carmoon’s film is not a fatal flaw – considering the subject matter, messiness may be the point – but it means Hoard is taxing and unrewarding to unclutter.
Hoard next debuts at the BFI London Film Festival in competition in October 2023. It is currently streaming in the US for free via Tubi.