What we have here is a dynamite premise fumbled in the execution. BRIGHTBURN gives us a strange visitor from another planet crashing to Earth as a baby and taken in by a good-hearted, infertile farm couple (Elizabeth Banks, David Denman) in the midst of baby fever. As with that other story of an infant from outer space being the answer to a childless couples prayers, there is no accounting for how they explain the baby they find in the debris of a crashed spaceship to the local townsfolk, much less the authorities. As with that other story, the child shows signs of being special, as in never a cut, bruise, or broken bone. As NOT with that other story, this kid is not here to help. In fact, it posits a far more compelling idea. What if this kid with powers far beyond those of mere Earthlings, had trouble fitting in and didn’t have the Earth’s best interests at heart to help ameliorate that situation?
Said kid is Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn), a nice boy given to giving startlingly complete answers in class and to obsessively doodling a particular symbol in his notebooks. He is the apple of both parents’ eyes, and they of his, with a playful relationship of obvious mutual respect. Alas, as his 12th birthday arrives, the travails of adolescence, apparently a universe-wide phenomenon, kick in. Suddenly there is talking back with ominous hostility. There is a distinctly unsettling cast to Brandon’s awakening interest in the opposite sex. Chores become exercises in frustration when implements sputter. Bad enough with human children, but with Brandon, there is super-human strength with which to contend that makes the experience not just taxing, but acutely dangerous. Now all this would be interesting, even fun, except that with Dunn there is little difference in affect between his Brandon’s sweet self, moody tween, and the sleepwalker inexplicably drawn to that glowing thing locked up in the off-limits barn. That his chosen super-villain costume consists of the tattered remains of his interstellar baby blanket roughly fashioned into cape and balaclava further fail to imbue Brandon with the necessary menace, glowing red eyes notwithstanding.
Sure, there are clever parallels drawn between the strains put on any family dealing with adolescent angst. The cracks in the heretofore solid relationship between mom and dad as Brandon’s behavior becomes more and more difficult to dismiss as normal. The struggle for the boy himself to try to be good versus the gratification of getting even. In the hands of a better director with a more subtle script, something noteworthy might have emerged. Instead, it’s a 20-minute story stretched to feature-length with tedious swaths that may have been intended as suspense, but instead feel like so much padding to increase the running time. Brandon stalking chipper Aunt Merilee (Meredith Hagner), who is also his school counselor, when she threatens to go to the sheriff about Brandon’s lack of remorse over the injury he caused a cute classmate devolves into flickering lights that are less squirm-inducing than irritating in its monotony. Watching someone dig a shard of glass out of an eye becomes a gratuitously gory exploration of ocular anatomy rather than something unsettling, while the use of a red filter to simulate the vision of the injured eye comes across as simply cheesy.
By the time those ci-mentioned symbols start popping up at scenes of mayhem, the derivative nature of the opus has set in. BRIGHTBURN, named for the town in which it is set, reveals itself as a retread of THE BAD SEED with a whiff of THE OMEN, with only a not uninteresting trope involving the tensile strength of pendant track lighting as a note of originality. Beyond the set-up, in which one might include too much sugar as at least an ancillary cause for the difficulty in Brandon’s interpersonal skills, the whole is a series of increasingly gruesome interludes and concerned parents reacting to same, though, and this is a major failing, always at the same emotional pitch in both the depiction and the reaction. Banks, a fine actress of considerable depth and complexity, gives it her all, but she is alone out there in a moribund film that, with all its unanswered questions and would-be tantalizing clues, is clearly angling for the franchise it hasn’t earned. Rather, leave us follow the adventures of The Big T (Michael Rooker), the conspiracy-addled whose hyperbolic ravings on the internet appear under the closing credits.