Tag Archives: Robin McLeavy

‘The Loved Ones’ Offers a Twisted Take on Girlhood

When you think about Australian horror, vast open space comes to mind. Emptiness. Desolation. Even in films as lush and verdant as Picnic at Hanging Rock, there’s an uneasy silence; the quietness of graves. The Outback carries the weight of imperial histories, the Aborignal peoples dispossessed, the violences of life. Australian horror plays on the fear of what you might find when you look a little too close—do you really know what lies over that hill? 

What doesn’t necessarily come to mind in a discussion of Australian horror is a teen girl’s bedroom. A dolly shot lingers on the abundant mess of dolls, glitter, and crafting materials, as a plaintive refrain of “am I not pretty enough” plays through a Walkman. 

Sean Byrne’s 2009 The Loved Ones, featuring the aforementioned room, complicates a commonly held script on what spaces are allowed to be horrific. While the terror of the domestic has been explored in Australian horror (think Hounds of Love), there is no precursor to the apparent banality of “Princess” aka Lola’s (Robin McLeavy) bedroom. Apparent here is the key word, as beneath the stuffed animals, dirty clothes, and crusted makeup something is wrong. Maybe there is a little too much girl in this space, it is just a little too unwashed, too childlike, too pink. The combination unsettles, we learn in just a few shots that Lola is not, quite, your average girl.

Or is she? In Byrne’s film there’s a great deal of gender-swapping classic horror archetypes: the final girl becomes the final boy, sexual menace comes in the form of the unhinged teen Lola. There is a temptation to view these reversals as outrageous. Lola, like any good villain, is a larger-than-life freak with her own moments of Michael Myers’ inspired invincibility and an appetite for depravity. There is a delightful obscenity in the way Lola crashes through life. In an unforgettable scene featuring fried chicken, milk, and the Colonel’s famous catchphrase, we realize this girl is capital-N nasty. Yet, it is this sheen of outrageousness—of Lola’s quasi-incestuous relationship with her dad, Lola in her prom dress pressing a drill into a young man’s skull, Lola lobotomizing her mother, Lola terrorizing boys, Lola really doing anything—that masks a disturbing truth: girls are fully capable of horror.

This unspoken, hushed truth is what makes The Loved Ones disturbing. It is not Lola’s estrangement from life that makes her a compelling villain, but rather her heightened relatability that creates a character who is truly unsettling. Lola is every destructive impulse, every mean and petty thought, every contradictory urge, and every gross desire that all girls feel. Lola’s humanity is what gives the film its enduring, uneasy impact. 

The Loved Ones begins as a boy’s story. Xavier, played by Brent Mitchell, is quietly depressed. He blames himself for his father’s death, he self harms, and hopes to die. The single bright spot in Xavier’s life is his girlfriend. Lola watches Brent from afar and one day asks him to the school dance. Brent gently turns Lola down and lets her know he has a girlfriend. Lola does not take this refusal well and lets her father, played by John Brumpton, know of her disappointment later at her home.

We meet Xavier the next day on an isolated walk through the countryside. He reflects on his father’s death when he is suddenly accosted from behind. Xavier wakes up, tied to a chair, in Lola’s kitchen. Both Lola and her father look down on him with maniacal grins. 

We soon learn that Lola has enlisted her father in procuring the boys who she desires, but these young men never seem to return her affection. Lola is angry, she thinks something is wrong with her, the questioning refrain of “am I not pretty enough” runs through her head. Her father protests that she is perfect. Lola is looking for her prince and these boys just don’t measure up. It’s not her, it’s always them. The film ostensibly focuses on Xavier’s flight to freedom. His numerous attempts to escape Lola’s house of horrors culminate with him battered, bruised, and barely alive. Yet, the film’s most interesting moments star Lola in all her damaged, bizarre glory.

Lola soon realizes that her father is the one she wanted all along; he is perfect and believes she too is perfect, it is meant to be. The perversity of the situation notwithstanding, we see the untouchable aching to be touched. Lola’s epiphany, that her father has been the one she has searched for all along, is gross at surface inspection. However, let’s keep with a reading where the object of Lola’s affection does not literally need to be her father. Rather, think about a time where you longed for someone who was bad for you. Think about a time where you wanted someone you should not want, someone who brought only ruin but felt so good in the meanwhile. This is Lola’s appeal. She is self-destruction unchained.

The Loved Ones bills itself as straightforward horror, a prom night gone seriously awry. However, consider this—how do you handle your most unruly, wild desires? How do you live with wanting things that are bad for you? How do you live with a violent, sometimes overwhelming, need for love? This question is the true lesson of The Loved Ones. There is nothing simple or straightforward about the messy processes of being human, being a girl in this world. Lola’s devious, psychotic, and seriously unwell, but aren’t there times where you’ve felt the same? Haven’t you times where you’ve surprised yourself with contradictory, dumb, and straight up awful actions? There are all moments that, upon reflection, we look upon with shame. 

That shame, or lack of shame, is what makes Lola a great villain. She is every drive that we are trained to tap down; a feral girl in a civilized society. To be a girl in this world is a real horror. McLeavy’s Lola shows—viscera, drill bits, blood, and all—the toll of girlhood in a world that wishes to deny its many violences.