If horror is about anything, it is about repression, and Fever Dream deals with both the impending climate disaster and the fears of motherhood, both being forced into the deliriously bright light of day. The film follows Amanda (María Valverde), as she brings her daughter, Nina (Guillermina Sorribes Liotta), to live in their new house in the countryside. There, she encounters Carola (Dolores Fonzi), who is also a mother, currently dealing with fears surrounding her son, David (Emilio Vodanovich), who drastically changed after drinking toxic river water and needed to have his spirit removed from his body to prevent his death. Through their continuously strange interactions, Amanda becomes more and more convinced that Nina is in danger from David specifically.
The structure of this film creates a heady trip, with events repeating and happening outside of linearity. Amanda and David serve as our narrators, having a conversation through voice over on how the story should be playing out and how it actually is. David repeatedly tries to coax the story out of Amanda, encouraging her to focus hard on the details, as if trying to stop the story from spinning out into nonsense. It is revealed throughout that their conversation is occurring as Amanda is dying from poisoning. This illness, caused as a result of the toxic environment infecting the body, has an infantilising effect on the adults it infects and a maturing effect on the children. It therefore makes sense that David and Amanda have their power dynamics inverted, with David leading the story as Amanda’s guide through a pain he previously experienced as a toddler.
We learn about David from his mother and from the voice over he provides, which may or may not be a construction of Amanda’s incapacitated state. He is presented by Carola as a problem child, who is, in her eyes, vastly different from who he was as an infant. She fears him, and because of this, Amanda does too. However, as an audience, we see very little of David. He is very quiet and doesn’t seem to interact much with anyone. He does some odd things (such as dragging dead birds out of the river and burying them in the garden), but nothing outwardly dangerous. David is supposedly half a person now, due to the spirit removing procedure that saved his life. When watching, it’s hard not to view this extreme reaction to David as absurd — a kind of moral panic — that the child Carola had desired to have was not the ideal. It was similarly difficult not to draw parallels between this and the stories of neurotypical parents who react in horror and dismay when their child suddenly starts displaying neurodivergent traits. There is a feeling throughout that Carola has lost something, has had her perfect life stolen from her because her child’s disability started to show, and this fear, like a fever, spreads and infects Amanda, and how she perceives David as well as her own child.
This is a story that centres almost wholly on mothers and their relationships with their children. Amanda talks about what she calls the “rescue distance” (which also happens to be a direct translation of the film’s title in Spanish), a measurement that she uses to see how far she would have to go and how much time she would have if Nina were to be in peril. Formulating how she would go about performing these actions (often as they are happening), the voice over serves as her inner fears unfiltered, particularly the idea that if something were to happen, she would have no way to stop it. With Nina’s father Marco (Guillermo Pfening) absent throughout, we see the pressure and crushing responsibility that is placed, often solely, on mothers to be an omnipresent caretaker regardless of the mental strain it has on them.
By presenting a narrative that is essentially the last thoughts someone is having before they die, the filmmakers are able to play with form and structure, subverting a conventional narrative for the sake of creating a fever dream that the audience can experience as well. The horrors of the inevitability of this fate for the people that live in this town can’t be obscure from the story because of this, no matter how much Amanda does not or will not remember the details. Every character is affected by the deliberate poisoning of the water in this film; just because we only see 93 minutes, doesn’t mean the deteriorating environment and subsequent deterioration of the body and mind goes away.
Fever Dream is currently available to stream on Netflix
by Amber Walker