When people go camping, it’s so they can “connect with nature”. They can hear the call of the wild, and flee the noise of daily life. Of course, modern camping does few of these things. We get in a car and drive to predetermined camping grounds; we build a tent we bought at REI; we have enough supplies to defend against the more unpleasant parts of the great outdoors. Jonas Govaerts‘ Cub skillfully takes the idea of recreational camping and the life lessons it can impart to children, and twists it into a symbolic, internal struggle between the stability of modern life and the unpredictable, dangerous lure of primal strength. Although the story can be confusing in how much it chooses to withhold, the mystery also keeps Govaerts’ tale immersive, moody, and unpredictable.
Sam (Maurice Luijten) is an emotionally distant boy who has joined a group of cub scouts as a way of trying to find stability following an unknown personal tragedy. Unfortunately, his fellow scouts and even one of the scoutmasters, Peter (Stef Aerts), bullies poor Sam. When the group goes camping, the scoutmasters regale the boys with the legend of “Kai”, a young boy who lives in the woods and becomes a werewolf at night. After they arrive at the campgrounds, Sam wanders off and discovers a masked, feral child living in the woods. The young camper begins an uneasy relationship with Kai, but their relationship becomes more tenuous as Sam is tempted to embrace his primal nature while a mysterious figure terrorizes the unfortunate souls who venture into the campgrounds.
Based on the brief synopsis, Cub is not the movie I expected. I went in thinking, “Cub scouts versus werewolf child! Bring on some B-movie fun!” The actual movie is far from that description, but still rewarding in its own right. Govaerts chooses to provide a unique meditation on the aftershocks of grief and how natural instincts conflict with domesticity. If you kick a dog enough times, he’ll either cower or he’ll bite back. When we see Peter and the other scouts taunt and mistreat Sam, they’re far away from the communal nature their organization is supposed to provide. They’re creating a social outcast even though Sam’s anti-social tendencies originally manifest as passive.
Govaerts wisely keeps us in the dark when it comes to Sam’s past trauma. Sam carries around a photograph, but we barely get a good look at it. The most I could discern is that something happened with Sam’s mother, and if that’s the case, Govaerts made a strong choice in showing a “cub” who’s lost the protection of his mama bear. Forced into a cruel environment, where can he turn for solace? For his fellow scouts, nature may be a vacation, but for Sam, it may be the only safe haven even if that means dangerous circumstances for others.
To the slight detriment of the film, it’s firmly in the horror genre, which means abiding by horror tropes that don’t always work in service of the larger story. The plot awkwardly tries to work in a slasher villain, and while his presence does serve a symbolic function, his M.O. is at turns silly and confusing. Like Sam’s photo, I appreciate Govaerts willingness to avoid constant exposition, but without any explanation, the slasher’s presence feels somewhat random.
Thankfully, most of the focus remains on Sam and a tremendous debut performance from Luijten. After checking his IMDb page, I was impressed that this is his first feature. The young actor conveys a difficult range of emotions as he must remain actively withdrawn for a large portion of the movie. He’s not just keeping his head down; there’s an awareness of his surroundings and how he has more of a connection with Kai than anyone else on the trip. Sam doesn’t rant and rave to show you he’s damaged. He’s quiet and sad and engenders our sympathy, which makes his journey far more compelling.
The arrogance of man in trying to control nature has been done time and time again throughout the ages. Cub is refreshing take on the themes by showing not only modern culture’s carelessness in the wild, but how the wild can be alluring not just because it’s beautiful, but because it can manifest unforeseen consequences. If the movie had been scouts versus werewolf-child, it may have been fun, but it would be in direct contradiction to what Govaerts has admirably accomplished with his thoughtful, unnerving, and melancholy picture. As one of the scoutmasters tells Sam, “Going to camp isn’t all fun and games.” He’s right. It’s much more.
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