With Becky, comedic actor Kevin James seeks to follow in the footsteps of his long-time chum Adam Sandler by proving he, too, can do dark, difficult, and deep. As the gnarly trailer for the movie suggests, Uncut Gems this ain’t. However, just because the flick isn’t a Safdie Bros all-timer with a magic stone at its heart doesn’t take away from the strength of James’ performance, or the surprising depth of the premise as a whole. Most of those who seek out Becky will do so on the promise of watching the King of Queens actor playing totally against type, and they won’t be disappointed, but the actor is upstaged here by a diminutive nemesis – which is only fair, considering the thing is named after her rather than him (well, nobody is going to fear a criminal named Becky unless he’s played by The Rock).
Annabelle: Creation star Lulu Wilson is the titular Becky who, when we first meet her, is having trouble recalling the trauma she’s just been through in front of a couple of soft-gazed cops. It’s a neat setup that establishes her as a bit of a victim, an idea that’s promptly dispensed with once we actually get a chance to be properly introduced to the scowling, bratty, gummy worm stealing teenager. Becky has recently lost her mother and well-meaning but clueless father Jeff (Joel McHale, who played a completely different kind of father in the terrific Assassination Nation) is getting ready to marry somebody new, who has a young child herself and, try as she might, just can’t get Becky to warm to either of them.
The foursome converge on the old family lake house for a weekend of strained meals and attempted family bonding but, after fleeing the property upon learning of her father’s intentions with his girlfriend, Becky finds herself in the only safe place as a crew of recently-sprung convicts descend to cause havoc. They’re led, as you’ve probably guessed, by James’ Dominick, who’s introduced via the back of his shaved head to showcase the massive swastika tattooed on there, amongst other hate-fuelled insignia. Sporting a big, bushy beard, his usually bright eyes hollowed out as though they’ve turned almost completely black, James is unrecognizable and genuinely terrifying. But there’s one thing his character is not counting on, and that’s a teenage girl’s resilience.
The setup is clunky at first, with a direct correlation made early on between the schoolyard and the prison yard (just like Good Charlotte tried to warn us all those years ago, school is a prison), but the two stories converge fairly quickly and once everybody is settled in the one location, Becky finds its feet. Wilson is doing way too much initially also, particularly considering flashbacks with her dying mother establish there was a time when her eyeliner wasn’t so smudged and her bangs weren’t so crested. But, much like the story itself, the young actress settles into it once her role in the story has been properly established. She finds her feet once things start to go south, rather than the other way around. Annabelle: Creation saddled Wilson with making her big eyes as large and round as possible while struggling to run away and look sad at the same time, so it’s great to watch her sink her teeth into a proper meaty role (or, rather, tear it apart).
Her Becky is smart, resourceful, and brave but she’s also ruthless and often hard to read. Although we’re obviously meant to root for her against a literal neo-Nazi, there are layers to this young woman, not all of them likeable. She channels the anger she’s feeling over her mother’s death into stabbing a bad guy to death with a ruler and takes a choke-slam (from retired wrestler Robert Maillet) like a champ. The styling infantilises Becky to a certain extent, particularly when it comes to her sparkly denim backpack, but her many layers of clothing end up being the kid’s armour as she hides out in the woods and fights for her life. In fact, it’s genuinely comforting to see a young actress completely covered up in a horror movie because it focuses the attention purely on skillset rather than looks.
Speaking of looks, James’s transformation here truly cannot be understated. The jury’s out on whether the beard is his but even without the (surprisingly well done) fake tattoos, his is an incredibly skilled, controlled performance. Strip away the Nazi accoutrements and Dominick’s intensity still shines through. James speaks in low, soft tones, demanding respect. He treats his considerable size as a boon, entering rooms in this stranger’s house like he owns the place and delivering sermons to his troops like he’s on a pulpit. Little of Dominick’s plan is given away, which is smart because it seems once it’s fully out there, it’ll read as just a touch ridiculous (probably intentional, given how ludicrous real-life racist diatribes are). His interactions with Kayla, who’s Black, are charged with hatred from both sides but the film never overplays its hand by having Dominick utter the “n” word or outright expressing his disgust – he’s too smart for that. Dominick looks nice and friendly but there’s darkness behind his eyes, something James hinted at in Paul Blart: Mall Cop even if that movie didn’t necessarily have the requisite depth, or willingness, to explore what that darkness might mean.
His henchmen are somewhat interchangeable, but Maillet makes an impression as a bit of a softie who draws the line at killing kids. The manner with which each dude is dispatched by the plucky Becky is wonderfully stomach-churning and inventive (there’s also a moment of appendage self-removal that’s brilliantly done). The gore is crunchy, the violence well-choreographed and easy to follow. Becky might be more than these petty criminals bargained for but she’s not a superhero either, and watching her inflict just as much pain as she sustains drives home just how resilient this young lady truly is – she’s so good, in fact, Dominick actually tries to recruit her at one point. Wisely, Becky doesn’t position her as her father’s saviour either. Becky isn’t fighting for anybody but herself. On that note, though, McHale does a fine job with limited screen-time, repairing some of the damage he did with that snarky, tone-deaf Tiger King catch-up on Netflix (though roles like Assassination Nation seem more suited to his inherent smarminess, rather than nice guy stuff).
Becky is small-scale, but the filmmakers do a remarkable amount with a single location, small cast, and drip-fed details intriguingly placed throughout to up the ante but keep the action grounded – there’s no danger of this thing going off the rails and becoming a Message Movie. It’s a simple tale smartly told, each element well-considered from the casting of an otherwise soft comedy star as a sadistic Nazi to the decision to pit a teenage girl against him without making her a superhero, a saint, or a slut. Even the score, by Nima Fakhrara (who has plenty of previous with nervy horror music, including the memorable score for the otherwise throwaway sci-fi movie The Signal), incorporates hushed breaths like the classic Friday the 13th tones, suggesting both a reverence for genre movies and a sly nod to how Becky could be seen as an bloodthirsty killer rather than a plain Final Girl.
Regardless of whether Becky signals the beginning of the Kevin James…aissance, it’s certainly an indicator that Lulu Wilson is a force to be reckoned with in horror. Keep giving her interesting roles like this, and watch her become the next Barbara Crampton or, in more modern terms, Samara Weaving. The bad ass final shot alone suggests that, when it comes to this young performer, we ain’t seen nothing yet (though it may also make you want gummy worms, so be forewarned).
Catch Becky on Demand and Digital from Friday, 5 June 2020
WICKED RATING: 8/10
Director(s): Jonathan Milott, Cary Murnion
Writer(s): Nick Morris, Ruckus Skye, Lane Skye
Stars: Lulu Wilson, Kevin James, Joel McHale, Amanda Brugel
Release date: June 5, 2020
Studio/Production Company: Yale Productions
Run Time: 100 minutes