Coercive Control – a form of abuse in a relationship that works not through physical violence but threats and other means of controlling a partner’s behaviour – only became a crime in the UK in late 2015. I don’t think it’s a commonly used description, or a crime, in much of the US, but Allure touches on it in some chilling ways.

Laura (Evan Rachel Wood) is about 30 and works for her Dad’s house cleaning company. On her first day working at a new property she meets 16 year old Eva (Julia Sarah Stone) and the two quietly begin a friendship. Laura’s behaviour is inappropriate from the start, not only spending time with Eva, but sharing joints with her. A line is crossed though when Eva confides that she doesn’t want to move with her mother and stepfather, so Laura suggests that Eva move in with her, and so begins an obsessive, controlling relationship.

If Allure stuck to that basic summary, I think I would have liked it a great deal, and when it does find focus there is an intriguingly intense and disturbing dynamic between Evan Rachel Wood and Julia Sarah Stone. Unfortunately, Carlos and Jason Sanchez do a lot of doodling in the margins of their screenplay, which means that there are many things the film hints at but ultimately leaves underexplored. For instance, in two scenes we see Laura apparently working as a prostitute. This thread serves little purpose in the film, and it’s unclear why Laura needs to do it, either financially (she has a house and a job) or psychologically. The same is true of other moments, like one early on when Laura’s dad (Denis O’Hare) tells her “anyone else would have been fired for this”. For what? At this stage we’ve only seen her speak to Eva, it was strange, yes, but if Eva’s mother has felt strongly enough to file a complaint, why does she let Laura come back and work there again? The scene feels strangely undefined.

Inside Laura’s house, Allure is much more interesting. I think Eva is initially naive to the older woman’s sexual interest in her, but it’s always clear to the audience, and sits under even the very early scenes disturbingly. It’s in these scenes, too, that we get to see how good both Wood and Stone are. Wood pitches Laura’s manipulation just right, knowing exactly what tone to hit. The self-pity when Laura is telling Eva that she can’t make a phone call, or that she was locked in the closet to protect her, is frightening in both the calculation and effectiveness with which Wood plays it. The dynamics of the relationship are more fraught from Eva’s side. She clearly looks up to Laura at first and is flattered by the attention, but that gives way first to some level of fear and then perhaps to Stockholm Syndrome. Julia Sarah Stone doesn’t have a lot of dialogue with which to chart this development, but she gives the film’s most rounded performance largely through physical work. One particularly striking moment comes after Laura apologises for exploding at Eva and we see Eva hugging her, cradling her almost. The mix of affection and terror, and the confusion between them, with which Stone plays this is striking. There are subtleties like this at play throughout her performance and, while the film itself is deeply flawed, this is an actress worth taking note of.

The problem continues to be that, outside the house, the screenplay never quite convinces or coheres. It keeps glancingly addressing things that should either be major themes or deleted entirely. This is especially true of Laura’s background. There is an interesting ambiguity to something she says to Eva towards the end of the film, but it’s almost immediately undermined in a conversation with her father. There the question would be much more interesting than the answer, but when there are things that do need answering they are left as hanging threads. Carlos and Jason Sanchez deliver a capable, if not overly striking, directorial job. The film is fairly drab looking by design, but they never get much tension out of the construction of their shots, that’s all in the performances.

I’m a little torn on Allure. It’s by no means a great film, even at its best, but it is worth seeing the two central performances, even though the shortcomings of the film’s structure and storytelling may grate. I can’t recommend the film wholeheartedly, but keep your eye on Julia Sarah Stone.

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