In the first scene of H&G, a new drama by Winnipeg filmmaker Danishka Esterhazy, we meet eight-year-old Gemma (Breazy Diduck-Wilson). She’s a resourceful, self-reliant child. By the second scene, we realize why. Living in poverty with a self-involved party-girl mother (Ashley Rebecca Moore), Gemma needs to look after herself, as well as her six-year-old brother Harley (Annika Elyse Irving). 

'Both young actors are outstanding, and they carry this film on their small shoulders. ' - Alison Gillmor

Esterhazy’s second feature is an unsettling update of the Hansel and Gretel story (the children’s names having being changed to the more modern Harley and Gemma).  Esterhazy has explored feminist re-workings of traditional tales in her earlier short films The Snow Queen and The Red Hood. In H&G (co-written with Rebecca Gibson), the original Grimms’ fairytale becomes an even grimmer contemporary Canadian scenario. Witches and wicked stepmothers might be scary, but poverty, child neglect and child exploitation turn out to be much scarier.

The story starts with Gemma being introduced to “Mommy’s new friend” at the breakfast table. The watchful child immediately senses that he’s a creep, but it will take longer for her mother to figure that out.

Unfortunately, by that time, the children will be lost in a Manitoba forest, and what seems to be their salvation will become sinister, as they are lured toward an isolated farmhouse by a trail of garden gnomes and knick-knacks. (Suddenly, a hand-painted “Together Forever” sign takes on a spooky cast.)  Gemma and Harley are taken in by a farmer (Tony Porteous), silent and hulking, but weirdly childlike. Fairy-tale menaces loom, though we aren’t sure where exactly, they are coming from.

H&G is a no-budget film, and Esterhazy works in a no-frills neo-realist style. The contrast between the film’s matter-of-fact surfaces and the monsters lurking below can be very effective. The film’s middle section possesses a kind of chilling banality. But there are other sequences that feel tonally flat.  

Esterhazy does best with the character-driven aspects of the story. Krysstal, the children’s mother, is selfish, but she’s also young, isolated and overwhelmed, so she’s no cardboard villain. The farmer is intriguingly hard to read.

Also notable is the poetic way Esterhazy conveys a child’s experience of the world. Both young actors are outstanding and they carry this film on their small shoulders. Irving is actually a little girl, though she very believably plays a little boy. And Diduck-Wilson is a find. She has an incredibly watchable face, and she’s expressive without being the least actor-y.

The film finishes ambiguously. For Gemma and Harley, let down by the adults in their lives again and again, there is no “fairy-tale ending.”

H&G runs at Cinematheque until April 4.