Director: Kris Smith
Cast: Nina Taylor, Steve Carroll, Kim Waters, Ann-Marie Doggett, Max Rudd, Mark Wells, Leila Kotori
Plot: Lauren (Taylor) is a quiet girl who lives alone with Mother (Waters) and Father (Carroll). She is not allowed outside, has a fascination for rectangles and is forced to ‘dance’ for Father at night.
Set Me Free Vol. 1 is a feature film, free to view on Youtube right here.
There are some hidden gems in the independent film circuit. The issue with Indie films is that as digital cameras become more affordable, the number of both directors and movies begin rising exponentially. This is good for the film industry as a whole, giving talent anywhere in the world, with whatever background, the chance to show the world their skill-set, whether that is acting, directing or camerawork. However, there is no guarantee every independent film out there is any good. After being subjected to a few awful features, shot in someone’s backyard with a few friends who did a class of drama once in Year 9, people tend to stop hunting down independent films without some sort of approval. It does mean that, while some movies get banished to a dungeon they belong, other movies that deserve recognition, like Set Me Free’s two volume drama, get lost in the mix.
Perhaps this is mainly down to what might be Set Me Free’s biggest mistake: allowing the feature(s) to roam free on Youtube. Without any kind of attempt at marketing it through the cinemas, it simply disappeared into the void. On the other hand, this does show that Set Me Free is a labour of love, the aim to get a feature film completed and out there, profit or fame not necessarily the principal aim. It is hardly done on the cheap either, production values up there with top ITV dramas, from crime scenes complete with extras in authentic police uniforms and cinematography without the usual pitfalls of ‘have-a-go’ directors. Set Me Free intrigues simply from a film-maker’s standpoint. Truth be told, it feels a little too good for Youtube, especially with its dark, lengthy subject matter. Youtube is home to ‘fast and frantic’ entertainment, to-the-point vlogs and sketches, not two volume long feature films about a girl’s emotional journey away from her parents. Set Me Free feels far removed from the audience that would find it interesting. And there is a powerful story at heart here. It opens with Nina Taylor’s Lauren, living in a country home, with Mother and Father. It doesn’t take long for the audience to clock on that something isn’t right. The parents have told Lauren that the world is so heavily polluted, only adults with protective gear can go outside, leaving Lauren trapped and dependent in her room. She has no concept of how food is made, how people age or where her father goes each morning. The first half hour of Set Me Free plays with this chilling setting as the atmosphere builds to the breaking point. As each new horror unfolds, we are desperate for salvation to arrive, a hope that seems very distant. Kris Smith masterfully stirs the pot to the boiling point, happy to let these scenes drag out as long as they need to. The true punch to the gut comes from how Lauren takes each intrusion into her personal life on the chin, blissfully unaware that she is both prisoner, slave and plaything to her cruel captors. Actors Steve Carroll and Kim Waters are tremendously vile, while just giving us enough snippets of their motivations for us to want to understand them, to find empathy. The script never allows us to peek behind their thoughts, just hints that somewhere along the line there had been a human decision that had simply been lost in the years of becoming addicted to the power they have over another person.
It is almost a shame when she finally gets away from her parents. Much like Room with Brie Larson, half of the movie is about the aftermath of these horrible events, but in taking the action aware from the first act, the pace of the film takes a stumble. The movie is far from bad; in fact, Kris Smith works very hard to keep that gripping oozing of tension fresh. This story is really about a girl who has never left her bedroom learning about the outside world for the first time. She befriends helpful mother of two (soon to be three), Rachel, who acts as a great foil for unwrapping her character’s mental process. We are fascinated at every step of the story, watching Lauren try to understand the world, information coming so thick and fast, we can feel the pain and confusion constantly assaulting her. And this brings me to Set Me Free’s main strength: Nina Taylor. Taylor delivers a raw, heart-breaking performance at the girl in the centre of the story. She drifts through each scene, as if she was sleep-walking, trapped in a nightmare that she believes is a dream. Despite of all the horrors she has suffered, she wraps herself in false security and hides behind the lies her parents told her. With no sense of good or bad, our heart is bled with delicious abandonment as both Smith’s direction and Taylor’s performance convey this sense that poor Lauren has no idea she is going through one of the worst things a human can go through. There is always the temptation to play a scene for laughs (Lauren not knowing what sex or a car is, Lauren sniggering at a police detective’s funny-sounding surname), but Smith stays true to the material and subject matter; these moments do not feel funny, more another pull at the heart-string as we realise just how far gone this brain-washed girl is. By the end of the first half, we are totally invested in Lauren, hanging on her plight. While the shift from hostage movie to character drama jeers and provides the movie’s biggest issue, when it finds its footing again, it can do no wrong.
Although, as the first volume fades to a close, you begin to question the decision to make it a two volume drama. Vol. 1 feels like the slow build-up to the main event, making it a rather hard movie to enjoy on its own. The final half hour seems to get bored with the current story and just start preparing for the next instalment. We cut from Lauren’s life to supporting characters we have only just met. Leila Kotori is a feisty reporter who clearly fuels the second half, but here is little more than a narrative device. Too much time is spent with the detectives, pulling us from Lauren’s story. It feels like Set Me Free isn’t sure if it is a feature film split in half, a two-part story or a lengthy web series. While its slow scenes give the first half some weight, Smith might have been better off, trying to edit his feature down into a two hour one-off movie. It is hard to really make a decision on that, until we have seen the final half.
Final Verdict: A wonderfully gripping surprise buried in the archives of Youtube, boasting a dark character piece and an outstanding turn from Nina Taylor.