Hungry Joe opens with a montage: snatches of home video from 1998 and 1999, in which happy couple Laura (Laura Bayston) and Craig (Joe Sims) learn of Laura’s pregnancy and move into a new home, intercut with footage of a fire blazing intensely. These are something like ‘before’ and ‘after’ shots, leaving the sense that all the Gilligan family’s early optimism and hope will eventually at best burn out, or even flare destructively. The rest of this 22-minute film, the latest in a run of multi-award-winning shorts written and directed by Samuel Dawe and Paul Holbrook, traces that gradual transition – from familial bliss to ruinous holocaust – over the course of more than a decade, as the Gilligans’ son Joe, a problem child from birth, will grow literally to eat his parents from house and home.
This is an impressionistic, episodic chronicle of horrifying domestic deterioration and decline – although it remains an open question just how inevitable these developments are, and where, if anywhere, the blame lies. Young Joe cries and screams throughout his babyhood, smells foul no matter how many times he is bathed, and, most of all, always eats, giving rise to his titular nickname. Craig has long since gone for good, leaving single mother Laura reluctantly to ‘indulge’ (as a judgmental health visitor advises) and feed the boy’s avaricious appetites all by herself – something which Laura does with an increasing sense of loathing and disgust. “Let’s talk about you,” says Doctor Lawrence (Robert Portal) to Laura when she visits him to find out what is wrong with Joe – and we too wonder whether Lawrence is simply not listening to what Laura is trying to say to him about her son’s aberrant behaviours, or if perhaps the Doctor, for all his aloof, patronising manner, is quite right to suspect that Laura herself might be the source of this problem.
“He eats and he eats and he never stops,” Laura complains about Joe – while external authorities see only neglect and malnourishment. Maybe Joe’s drive to consume – his monstrous, insatiable neediness for the comfort and gratification of food – displaces and supplements a different kind of emptiness in this loveless home. The one line that Joe is heard to utter in the film, and the reception that this expression of yearning gets from his mother, crystallise precisely what has gone wrong in this household, and how some aches can never be healed. The house itself soon becomes a squalid, stinking tip, reflecting the moral messiness of the scenario unfolding within. As Joe grows into a gorging teen (Andrew Greaves), his voracious habits also shift and expand into something more inhuman – until Laura finally finds a way to combine her disgust at what her son has become, her fiery infanticidal dreams, and the bare remains of her nurturing side.
Hungry Joe is about the making of a monster – and yet, while it skilfully deploys all the gross tropes of body horror, it never loses track of the socioeconomic environment and parental influences that nourish in Joe his perverse impulses and allow him to grow up so very, very hungry. Merging Loachian social realism with the kind of mother-son relationship familiar from Psycho (1960), and documenting the progression of an eating disorder through the grotesque grammar of genre, this is a smartly ambiguous, thoroughly bleak family tragedy.
© Anton Bitel