I had the pleasure of viewing this film during the 2015 Dallas Film Festival. This review does not contain any spoilers.
Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes
Cast: Alex Peters, Gavin Howe
Director: Tim Skousen
There’s a common saying that every family has “one”- that one person who gets a lukewarm invite to the family get-togethers and everyone secretly hopes that person doesn’t show up. 13-year-old Samantha (Alex Peters) and 6 year-old William-Paul (Gavin Howe) have a person like that in their family and it turns out to be their own father, who is divorced from their mother and estranged from the family. When he arrives uninvited to Thanksgiving dinner, the friction quickly escalates into a horrific scene that causes the siblings to flee their home and fend for themselves.
A modern fairy tale
Director Tim Skousen defines Thunder Broke the Heavens as a modern fairy tale akin to Hansel and Gretel, and we do see some parallels in the film. After the event at the beginning of the film the brother and sister arrive at a foster home, and their new family appears to be open and friendly…at first. Soon it becomes clear why the family agreed to take in the young siblings and then Samantha and William-Paul flee into the woods. When two kids with a limited number of supplies and no money decide to live on their own it’s assumed that things can only go downhill from there, and unfortunately it does.
Bleak and heart-breaking, but hopeful
The entire film focuses on the grim reality that the two children find themselves in, and I heard a few sniffles from people in the audience as the story came to the end. I know some people may avoid dreary films like this, especially when it involves children, but it’s actually the two child actors that really elevate the story to keep you rooting for their well-being.
Alex Peters gives a strong performance as the older sibling Samantha, and she reminds of Jennifer Lawrence’s Ree Dolly in Winter’s Bone – quietly plotting her next move, determined to survive, and genuinely hopeful that somehow, some day, life will get better. I believe Peters is well on her way to a break out role that will catapult her into the Hollywood A-list.
Gavin Howe as the six-year old William-Paul is equally amazing, although sometimes it’s heart-breaking to watch his character come to terms with the recent loss of his family and the abuse from his foster family. Howe never comes across as a youngster who is surprisingly wise for his age, and instead he appears to be a normal child who is trying to be strong for his sister but ultimately can’t understand what’s happened in the past and how it will impact his future. He lives in the moment: “I’m hungry”, “I’m sleepy”, “What should we do now?” and it’s an interesting contrast to his sister who is old enough to realize that a forward-thinking game plan is necessary for their survival.
I believe a good film stays with you long after you finish watching it. This film is vibrant and emotional, and it’s a strong example of what the human spirit can endure. When you feel like you’ve reached the lowest point and there’s no relief in sight, you realize if you can dig a little bit deeper you’ll find the will to keep going.
Yes, I know that last sentence is so cliche! I guess that’s what happens when a film leaves you clutching a tissue and clapping as the ending credits start to roll.