Family is important in the mountain communities of rural West Virginia.
So when the matriarch of the Parker family dies in a freak accident, the surviving members draw even closer together. Like other families in the community, the Parkers have a long history in the area. Unlike other families, however, the Parkers have a horrific legacy that they have kept closely guarded, and that legacy now threatens to expose them to scrutiny that they will not be able to survive.
Frank (Bill Sage) is respected, if not beloved, as the owner of a small trailer park. He is left to raise his three children alone: two teenage daughters, Iris (Ambyr Childers) and Rose (Julia Garner), and pre-pubescent son Rory (Jack Gore). Soon after the death of his wife, Frank speaks to his children about the importance of tradition and the survival of the family. He’s referring to certain responsibilities carried out by the matriarch; Iris understands and acknowledges that those responsibilities have been passed on to her, and accepts her duties, without needing to spell things out.
The family legacy is not disclosed until quite a bit later in We Are What We Are than in the film that serves as the source material, Somos Lo Que Hay (2010), so I won’t reveal it here. As a substitute for full disclosure, We Are What We Are emphasizes a ticking clock timetable that runs three days. Over the course of those three days, the individual family members fast; at the conclusion of the prescribed period of time, Iris is supposed to do something that we suspect is not pleasant in order to provide for everyone.
Jim Mickle directed and also wrote the screenplay with Nick Damici. Previously, the two collaborated on the highly-regarded horror films Mulberry Street (2006) and Stake Land (2010), and their experience is brought to bear in We Are What We Are, which moves the setting of the original from urban Mexico to rural America and flips the family structure from a patriarchy to a matriarchy. There are other changes as well, but the key is that Mickle has not merely fashioned a beat-for-beat remake, but instead reimagined the core elements of the story and the characters.
We Are What We Are is deliberately paced, creating an atmosphere thick with dread and dark foreboding. The well-tuned lead performances by Sage, Childers, and Garner are fully in harmony with the minor-key environment. Key roles played by Kelly McGillis (as a kindly neighbor) and Michael Parks (as a kindly doctor) add tension simply because they effectively represent the concerned, politely observant, and definitely not stupid community that surrounds the Parker family; it’s a pleasant surprise that Mickle avoids any stereotypes about rural West Virginia and the people who live there.
That setting — thick forests, cloudy skies, a drenching rainy season — contributes to the ominous dramatics as the story plays out and the prospects of the Parker family become more dire and desperate. Their secrets are uncovered, and the family’s future direction is determined. And it leads to a haunting finale that comes fully to grips with a horrific legacy.
We Are What We Are opens exclusively at the Angelika Film Center in Dallas on Friday, October 11.