For a filmmaker to take a possessive credit in their debut is already a confident move; for the opening credits of the first feature by writer-director-star Carlson Young to present it as “Carlson Young’s ‘The Blazing World’” is a brazen one. That title, of course, belongs first to a somewhat more established female author: Margaret Cavendish, whose 1666 book “The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing-World” was a foundational work of science fiction. Cavendish’s adventurous exploration of alternate dimensions has given loose inspiration to Young’s glittery but grief-fueled fantasy, which those credits again describe as “inspired by Margaret Cavendish and other dreams.”
Other names like Lewis Carroll, Guillermo del Toro and Tarsem Singh aren’t lucky enough to get namechecked, though they’re all clearly in Young’s dream stew. The result, however, isn’t a film to which many would eagerly lay claim. Ambitious but tediously precious, sincerely conceived but derivatively realized, “The Blazing World” throws an ornate heap of production design at an anemically scripted psychological metaphor, and counts on a combination of fairy dust and sheer determined nerve to make the whole contraption fly. For some, it will: Young’s vision has already secured her a Sundance berth, not to mention an ensemble of name actors (including no less formidably freaky an auteur’s lucky charm than Udo Kier in full-ghoul mode) to support her own overwhelmed lead turn. Distributors may be more skeptical.
Young’s film began life as a 12-minute short that premiered at Sundance in 2018. Its expansion has entailed some elaborate world-building — “The Blazing World” commendably serves up a maximalist aesthetic on a minimalist budget — but the screenplay hasn’t been sized up to match, instead running floridly in place after completing a slender setup. Agonized but ethereal protagonist Margaret (a tip of the hat, one presumes, to Cavendish) is introduced as a cherubic child (Josie Fink), catching fireflies with her twin sister Elizabeth (Lillie Fink) in the garden of their wealthy family’s country estate: a homestead that looks equal parts fairytale creation and capitalist McMansion. Their warring parents (Vinessa Shaw and Dermot Mulroney, both under-tested) are tetchy and negligent: One day, while they’re fighting indoors, Elizabeth falls face-first into their swimming pool, and drowns.
Margaret is dually haunted by this tragedy and by something disturbing she saw at the same time: an eerie, leering stranger (Kier) by the pool, beckoning her into what appears to be a gaping black hole in the space-time continuum. It’s not a sight you’d shake easily, even if it weren’t Udo Kier doing the beckoning, and Margaret’s trauma still looms large when we cut to her as a depressive college student (now played by Young) in the city, fixated on esoteric spiritual literature that has her convinced her sister is still alive — merely trapped in another dimension. Even the crackpot TV guru (Liz Mikel) she admires is dismissive when Margaret accosts her for help: “You should watch the work of Doctor Who, it’s on the BBC,” she advises.
As her parents prepare to sell the family home, Margaret returns to confront its demons (in either dimension) one last time. After an evening out with old friends that culminates in some hallucinogenic drug-taking — giving viewers unlimited license to describe the film as “[insert cultural reference point] on acid” — she sees Kier’s sinister figure beckoning once more, and follows him into the portal.
Cue a lengthy progression of variously unhinged dream tableaux, during which parallel-universe Margaret must complete a series of “Pan’s Labyrinth”-like quests that may or may not reunite her with Elizabeth. This woozy journey takes her from darkly distorted, “Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”-like corridors to surreal desert oases to distorted, vermin-infested recreations of her childhood bedroom, key memories and quotes from her past echoing in strange, displaced contexts. The peaks and valleys of her mental health are condensed to an extreme, upsetting degree: Some suicide imagery here borders on the inappropriately explicit.
There are pleasures to be taken from the resourceful staging of this journey by Young, DP Shane F. Kelly and production designer Rodney F. Becker, who all meet on the same wavelength of baroque but homespun kitsch. Isom Innis’ loudly assertive, orchestral-to-electric score, meanwhile, dictates emotion wherever the writing blanks out — not for nothing do the credits sandwich Innis between direction and screenplay. (Chintzy digital effects, on the other hand, don’t quite pull their weight.)
But it’s hard not to miss an equivalent level of detail in the storytelling, which more or less grinds to a halt once Margaret jumps down the proverbial rabbit hole: Her dreamscapes reveal little about her or her much-mourned relationship with her sister, while Young’s earnest performance is too wanly reactive to stand up to all the film’s cluttered formal business. “What the darkness eats, the darkness keeps,” Margaret is warned at one point, and sure enough, the film seems consumed by its simultaneously dark but neon-lit impulses, leaving a perplexed, enervated audience on the outside. It’s Carlson Young’s blazing world, and we’re barely invited into it.