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Joy (Max Eigenmann) is one of millions of domestic workers worldwide. She’s overlooked by some employers, while others intensely scrutinize her every move. Joy is trying to survive another day, and out of sight of her employers, she’s saving up for bigger dreams they can’t imagine for her: stability, safety, a neglected career she hopes to reclaim, and a home for her and her daughter Grace (Jaeden Paige Boadilla). In a desperate effort to secure that future, she’s saving up to pay a fixer many thousands of pounds for papers to remain in the country. With a deadline looming over her head, she takes an unusual job in a mansion where she can live and hide her daughter from her employer’s view. It seems like the perfect step towards the freedom she so craves, but Joy and Grace begin to notice something odd about her employer—and the danger that will soon befall them all.
In his feature debut, writer and director Paris Zarcilla proves he is a master storyteller. He carefully builds his suspenseful tale with a horror twist layer-by-layer, showing us Joy’s hardships, establishing Grace’s rebellious phase, and immersing us in their problems until what looks like divine intervention arrives that’s almost too good to be true (and it is). The scares include nightmare sequences, suspenseful escapes, and awkward insensitive exchanges between Joy and her employer Katherine (Leanne Best)—the kind that makes you flinch just overhearing them.
Cinematographer Joel Honeywell further enhances these feelings by making the film’s main setting—a stately old mansion with much of the furniture covered in sheets and in general disarray until Joy arrives—feel even more like a trap. Through careful lighting, costuming and production design, Joy’s life looks colorless until she steps into the house, but even then, she is not at home. There is a stifling, unwelcome air that permeates every room, and every interaction with Katherine feels like she’s testing Joy. Combined, these efforts leave the viewer in a state of perpetual discomfort, bracing for the next impact or nasty surprise. “Raging Grace” is a thriller in every sense of the word.
Between Joy, Grace, Katherine, and Mr. Garrett (David Hayman), Katherine’s great uncle she’s looking after, there’s a great game of shifting loyalties that intensifies the film’s suspense. Even as you feel you understand the dynamic between the four-person cast, there’s new information or a change that challenges what you think you know about these characters. As Joy and Grace, Eigenmann and Boadilla bring so much complexity to their performances, shouldering the weight of their characters’ pasts without the chance to speak of their pain until much later in the movie. It’s an incredible pairing of a mother-daughter duo against the world, including the racist employers who fail to see their humanity.
Because whether the violence is an all-out physical attack or thoughtless stereotypes diminishing Filipinos, Zarcilla connects these dots to show how dehumanization leads to real-life cruelty. There are people who think they can lord over Joy, sexually harass her, or worse, and they are entitled to exact that abuse because they benevolently hired her, thus excusing them of punishment. The movie refutes this status quo, and as Joy so perfectly sums up: “We prepare your meals, administer your medicine, we sing your kids to sleep, we walk your dogs, we take care of your parents, we pick up your shit, and when you’re dying, we comfort you until your last breath. We don’t need your help—you need ours.”
Fortunately, there is more to this story than ongoing colonizer violence. Zarcilla also creates space to celebrate Filipino culture and its survival through Joy and Grace’s story. Tagalog is spoken throughout the film, with Joy and Grace switching freely between languages. At one point in the film, you see Joy away from the confines of her work, smiling at Grace, while music and traditional dance brighten their lives like nothing else in the film. It’s a visual reclamation of the humanity their employers have denied them, a celebration of the culture they were told to hide, and the warm embrace of a thriving community overlooked by too many.
In theaters now.