(Welcome to The Quarantine Stream, a new series where the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.)
The Movie: Orphan
Where You Can Stream It: HBO Max
The Pitch: Wealthy couple Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard adopt seemingly sweet orphan Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman) and quickly come to regret it after Esther turns out to be one bad seed.
Why It’s Essential Quarantine Viewing: This movie shouldn’t own as hard as it does, but director Jaume Collet-Serra, who knows exactly how to spin trash into gold, sells it. Sure, “evil little kid” movies are a dime a dozen, but Orphan is so stylish and so unapologetically nasty that it’s hard not to love. Plus: that whopper of a twist is a total hoot.
Can we please crown Vera Farmiga horror royalty at this point? From her work on Bates Motel to The Conjuring Universe Films, and, of course, Orphan, Farmiga has a real knack for bringing believability to the unbelievable. Her performances are always anchored and never very showy, but you never once doubt that she’s up against ghosts, or evil dolls, or, in the case of Orphan, a murderous little girl.
Orphan is told almost entirely from Farmiga’s character’s point-of-view, and, as is usually the case in stories like this, she’s the first to realize there’s something wrong with Esther. Peter Sarsgaard, as her dweeby husband, is clueless and even thinks his wife has gone off the deep end when she starts suggesting Esther’s up to no good. But of course, Farmiga is right. As Esther, Isabelle Furhman gets to do a lot of terrible things, and like Farmiga, she, too, really sells it.
As far as stories go, Orphan doesn’t break the mold. But director Jaume Collet-Serra, the filmmaker behind The Shallows, The Commuter, and several other stylish high-concept modern-day B-movies, pulls out all the stops, ratcheting up the style over the substance every time. In some cases that can be a hindrance, but here, it works. And the film doesn’t bother sugarcoating the horror, even when it involves other kids (Aryana Engineer, as Farmiga’s deaf daughter and Esther’s new sister, is probably the most adorable child actor in history, and I don’t say that lightly, since I usually cringe at the work of most child actors).
But what really sells Orphan is its goofball twist. A twist so big, and dumb, and fun, that I can’t not talk about it. So, if you’ve never seen Orphan, and want to go in unspoiled (and you’ve somehow managed to avoid the spoiler all this time), turn back now. Spoilers follow.
Okay, so, all through the film, Esther seems wise beyond her years. Sure, she’s a kid, but she can speak multiple languages, including sign language; can play the piano like a prodigy; and, of course, she also acts like a cold-blooded killer, able to bash a nun’s head in with a hammer or try to burn her adoptive brother to death. Well, as it turns out, Esther isn’t just a particularly gifted, and evil, kid. She’s not a kid at all. She’s actually a 33-year-old woman with hypopituitarism, which stunted her growth and resulted in proportional dwarfism. Taking advantage of her situation, Esther has spent most of her adult life posing as a child and wrecking havoc (when she wasn’t locked up in a loony bin).
It’s incredibly silly, but Collet-Serra has done such a great job setting up the heightened reality the film exists in that it works. Sure, we laugh out loud at how wacky this is. But we also love the movie all the more because of it.
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