In the tranquillity of an isolated natural landscape, it is hard to imagine the idea of control. Nothing is “under control.” Waterfalls erupt, grass sprouts, mosquitoes eat — but in the Catskill mountains exists a new kind of apex predator. It is Lila, played by Talia Balsam, who exists at the top of the food chain, thanks to her manipulative maternal drive. When she begins to lose the reigns over the kingdom in South Mountain, her serene summer spirals into a hopeless pit of isolation. Hilary Brougher captures chaos in every nook and cranny of Lila’s once-placid life.
Lila lives with her family and friends in the mountains. Within the first sequences, a rolling image of summer in the Catskills is established: nature is sprawling, wooden porches creak, clothes are worn thin and littered with holes. As food hits the grill, the young ones of the family try lighting firecrackers. This is what summer should look like, the summer we spend dreaming about every other day of the year — and Lila is proud to be at the helm, directing everyone’s happiness. Her manipulations are subtle at first — she frequently asks if people have eaten, a small characterisation that allows Brougher to layer more into her shrewd personality. Lila has made herself the keystone of the community.
And as the film constructs this image of Lila’s small home resting in the sleepy Catskills, it immediately strips the paint from the walls. Lila’s daughter, Sam (Macaulee Cassaday), is leaving for the summer. Her best friend has been diagnosed with breast cancer. Possibly the worst of it all — her husband Edgar (Scott Cohen) has just become the father to another woman’s baby. As Lila consoles her best friend and prepares dinner for the family, Edgar hides in his room, on FaceTime as his mistress gives birth. Tension builds, but it never really erupts — South Mountain is taut, but it never feels removed from reality. It is wholly Lila’s twisted perspective of her life.
Brougher stumbles slightly with the delivery of exposition, which is a bit heavy-handed. While we are dropped into the narrative and initially process it as it unfolds, there’s actually quite a bit of pre-narrative relevant to the timeline. Lila’s family has never really been as pristine and quaint as it seems, but the reveals are clumsy and anticlimactic. While everything seems mysterious at first, the plot loses intrigue when details are schlepped into wordy arguments.
Above this, though, is Talia Balsam’s excellently written character and even more stellar performance — her execution of the role alone makes the film worth a watch. Her ability to flip from devious to compassionate makes the film incredibly alluring, and it is the connection between these two that gives it such cunning manipulation. It is hard to root for Lila, but it may be even harder to resist the pull of her deviance. Even as an audience member, there’s no way to even imagine standing in her way.
Picture Phantom Thread in the languid, natural landscape of the Catskills — that’s South Mountain. It’s slightly rough around the edges, but with a knockout performance from Balsam and several impressively suspenseful moments, it’s a good summer flick. Brougher is able to create thrill out of domesticity — which never fails to entertain!
by Fletcher Peters