Growing up can be a real drag. It’s no wonder the teen and early college years are a perennial pop culture obsession, with the dawn of each new year bringing a crop of youth-centric dramas. (In 2017 alone we’ve already seen Before I Fall create well-deserved buzz for newcomer Ry Russo-Young and watched Riverdale blow all the way up.) But perhaps thanks to that time of life’s particular set of super dramatic humiliations, personal crises and awkward sexual revelations, it’s also a stage that’s tailor-made for the horror genre. Take The Exorcist, arguably the most iconic modern horror film, which follows a 12-year-old girl who suddenly begins exhibiting strange and crude behavior after toying around with a Ouija board. Then there’s Carrie, a sheltered teenage outcast whose humiliation, thanks to a surprise period in the girls locker room, awakens her hidden telekinetic powers that brings her often cruel high school to its knees.
The ‘70s wasn’t the only decade that brought us horror tales of female coming of age—take Ginger Snaps, a sly, self-aware werewolf film that draws its more comedic elements from its extensive period talk (“they don’t call it a curse for nothing”) or last year’s The Witch, a film that saw a teenage Thomasin’s word implode as she teeters on the edge of childhood and womanhood.
But now, thanks to writer/director Julia Ducournau, the coming of age genre just got a sexy and gory shakeup with the pulsating, visceral horror show Raw. Centering on Justine (Garance Marillier), a young woman from a strict vegetarian home, Raw traces her attempt to traverse (and fit inside) the complex and often abusive social structures of the new veterinary college where she’s studying. Working against her is her elder sister, who meets Justine with borderline disgust at every turn. She’s also saddled with sadistic upperclassmen fixated on achieving a new level of hazing cruelty with their freshmen “rookies”, who must endure everything from relatively harmless chanting and seven-minutes-in-heaven hijinks to buckets of blood and consuming raw rabbit livers. (Yeah. This one gets gross.) Justine, for her part as a newbie, takes everything in stride until the offending meat is offered. Hesitant to break her vegetarian commitment, she balks, but as these things to go, peer pressure wins out, and it isn’t long before things begin to spiral down into gruesome and bloody depths as Justine develops a taste for human flesh.
Where Raw is concerned, weak stomachs need not apply. Bursting at the seams with disconcerting imagery, Ducournau really goes there with nauseatingly realistic rashes, raw chicken noshing and eerie veterinary procedures before cannibalism ever enters the picture. And when it does? Steel yourself—there’s a scene involving a bikini wax gone wrong (though probably not in the way that you’d expect) that threatens to brand itself in the mind of the viewer, and a cannibal-on-cannibal schoolyard fight that draws serious blood.
But despite the film’s commitment to serving up creepy images galore, Raw is also consistently emotionally resonant and engrossing. “It’s made to be disturbing, that’s for sure,” says Ducournau when I ask her about Raw’s gore, “...but it’s also meant to be endearing.” At its heart, Raw is a drama between two sisters, the wide-eyed and tumultuous Justine and her jaded older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) and their messy, bloody attempts to find how they fit in the microcosm of their college. And while Raw spins much of its horrors from viscera, its most troubling implications are those that speak to our innate desire to fit into the spaces we’ve been allotted in the world.
“Is it a good thing to fit?,” asks Ducournau. “Personally, I don’t think it’s a good thing. I think it’s way better to make something positive out of your monstrosity than to fit a box that makes you not what you are.” It’s rare cannibalism can be used to tell such a nuanced story, but rather than vampirism or another more familiar horror trope, Justine’s preference for people allows Raw to transform a real person into a literal monster, one that embodies some of humanity’s deepest taboos. For better or worse, Justine’s predilections exploit the coming of age structure to return the autonomy of experience to Justine herself, as she takes a bloody bite out of her future. And amongst the gleeful viscera, Raw paints a picture not just of the horrors of coming of age, but the terror of establishing yourself as an independent being from those around you.
Ducournau is quick to point out that Raw is a “feminist” film by nature of its empowered and violently free protagonist, but it doesn’t tell a “feminine coming of age” tale—”if there is an equality to find in the audience beyond genders, beyond origins, beyond religions, it’s the body. Because it’s always painful, it’s always scary, it’s always beautiful, no matter what.” And you’d be hard-pressed to find a film this year more preoccupied with the physical realm and in flesh and blood than this one. It’s got an innate vitality that’s as present in Ducournau’s virtuosic one-takes of a manic and sweaty basement party as they are in Justine’s violent, desperate sex scenes, and it’s the youthful exuberance that keeps the film humming even as it hurtles towards its dark and bewitching conclusion.
“I don’t think that by repressing anything, you grow up. I think you grow up when you accept stuff,” Ducournau explains “And this is when you can make moral decisions, when you are in total ownership of the information. This is what happens to [Justine].” A coming of age gem in gore fiend clothing, Raw carefully upends expectations of what the genre can do, and what viewers expect of its characters. And just like that, Ducournau has made a coming of age horror film that doubles as a deep rumination of the meaning of life: it’s messy and confusing, it’s genuine and terrifying, it’s sexy and surprising. But don’t ever underestimate Raw’s power—because just like so often in real life, this one’s got a twist ending.