In this tense Canadian feature, which draws on the 2014 movie The Babadook thematically, Josh is a weird but normally well behaved little boy with an imaginary friend he calls Z (or ‘Zee’ phonetically). Josh’s parents, Kevin and Elizabeth, humour the child, thinking it’s a phase he’ll grow out of.
But Josh’s belief in his friend grows: for example, he doesn’t like the bedroom door open when he’s going to sleep because “Z likes it dark.” And Elizabeth finds a massive grotesque drawing scrawled on Josh’s bedroom wall which he describes as a representation of his friend. Eek! Some friend.
Josh gets suspended from school for using bad language and hitting other kids which is quite unlike him. The problem is exacerbated by Kevin keeping from Elizabeth the regular report cards his son had been given from the school. She tries to set up play dates but is shunned by most of the local mums: and when she does find someone willing to play with Josh it ends horribly, with Josh’s playdate David literally thrown over the banisters (it’s a short but intensely frightening scene which sticks in the memory). Josh denies responsibility.
The school psychologist encourages the parents to do more to play with Josh. When the name ‘Z’ is mentioned, the psychologist seems to know more than he’s letting on. With dad away for work, it’s left to Elizabeth to create the fun. A trip out to the fair gives her the first brief glimpse of the frightening Z on one of the rides.
Clearing out her late mother’s house Beth finds an old VHS tape when she puts in the VCR which shows footage of Elizabeth as a little girl, also making reference to an invisible friend called Z. It seems that Z has returned via Josh, but its intentions are fixed on Elizabeth.
Z, like Itsy Bitsy which also screened at the Festival, is a horror movie with a very developed emotional heart. At its center, for most of the film, is the tested relationship between mother and son in the face of Josh’s increasingly appalling behavior, and Elizabeth’s powerlessness in the face of it.
The final reel does move to the more standard territory but remains effective because of the time that director Brandon Christensen spends in establishing the characters (it’s a trick he pulled off to similar effect in his first feature, 2017’s Still/Born). A solid effort, not totally original, but immensely creepy.