Do you dream of living in a luxury home but can’t afford the pricey rent, much less a hefty mortgage? Well, welcome to the world of live-in staging, where developers hire low-income families to decorate and maintain properties in hopes of attracting potential buyers. Enter Model Home, a brand-new Horror-Thriller offering from High Windows Films / Buffalo 8 Films, that made its world premiere in the Pacific Northwest at the North Bend Film Festival on Saturday, August 25 at 3:25 PM PST.
Here, in a deserted development, post-market crash, single mother Camila Torres (Monique Gabriela Curnen: The Dark Knight 2008, Fast & Furious 2009) relocates with her adorable son Jaime (Luke Ganalon: Grey’s Anatomy series, Bless Me, Ultima 2013). They are directed by the obnoxious, hoity-toity real estate agent, Brenda (Kathy Baker: Edward Scissorhands 1990, Picket Fences series), to keep the house clean and looking lovely. Oh, and just a passing warning, despite there being no one else living in the area, someone is looting in the neighborhood.
Almost immediately, a multitude of issues become apparent. First, there is Camila’s complicated pill regiment, which young Jaime oversees at scheduled intervals with a picture-guide. Then, there’s the fact that before they are even officially moved-in, someone has broken into the car and tossed their belongings around the driveway. Also, there appears to be a creepy dude (Jasper Cole: The Purge: Anarchy 2014, American Horror Story series) with a fetish for women’s hair living in an RV parked in the development.
Despite all of these issues, Camila is committed to soldiering onward, and she begins to frequent the local discount crafting shop, while working diligently to build the life she sees in magazines. As the situation begins to spiral out of control, Camila’s condition grows ever-more precarious, leaving Jaime to fend for himself in their Southwestern wasteland. But something is not all floral wreaths and handmade gorgeousness in the Torres household, so what will be the cost of Camila’s clinical need to craft a better life?
Clocking in at 82 minutes in-length, Model Home is a directorial debut for Patrick Cunningham, and was written by Cunningham and William Day Frank (Untitled Hollywood Hills Project 2018, Sunny 2019). The film also stars Jon Jon Briones (Sons of Anarchy series, American Crime Story series) as the manager of Craft Town, Walt Fan; Keram Malicki-Sánchez (True Blood series, Texas Chainsaw 3D 2013) as Craft Town employee Dean; and Cici Lau (Legally Blonde 2001, Fear the Walking Dead series) as Mrs. Fan.
While Model Home is billed as a Horror-Thriller, the reality here is something that leans more towards a disturbing Drama with heavy Thriller elements, or a fully realistic Psychological Horror offering, if you will. Which is to say that Model Home is entirely a tale of one woman’s psychological illness and devolvement into the deranged. It is truly haunting in its deranged contents, but it is also entirely embedded in harsh reality.
The success of Model Home sits almost entirely on two sets of shoulders: those of Curnen and Ganalon. As the mentally ill Camila, Curnen gives a stellar performance in a complicated role. While it is directly suggested that Ms. Torres suffers from Bipolar Disorder, in truth, her illness leans more toward Schizoaffective Disorder, a kind of bipolarity meets Schizophrenia. She has major delusions, body tremors and paranoia, she’s up and then she’s crashing down, and there is clearly no way that a pre-teen boy can care for her condition properly.
In the role, Curnen is, perhaps most importantly for the success of the entire production, likeable and sympathetic. As viewers, we feel an empathy for her condition, which has caused her to slip so deeply into the dream world of magazines, where she sees the “perfect family” and wants so desperately to bring them to life. Camila’s inability to distinguish fact from fiction, fantasy from reality is her clear downfall, and it makes her a sympathetic character in this horrific tale of mental illness. Curnen’s delicate portrayal is a credit to this, and never leaves Camila feeling laughable – even if she is entirely looney tunes.
Ganalon gives a splendid performance as a young boy – who oft wanders the abandoned development in a red fleece bathrobe and pool floaties on his arms – trapped between the debilitating crush of his mother’s mental illness and the solitude of his new home. Desperate for friendship – especially that of the four-legged kind – all Jaime dreams of is being owned by a dog; when a gorgeous brindle pup turns up in the neighborhood, God seems to be answering the boy’s simple dreams. In fact, the simplicity of Jaime’s hopes are a direct contrast to the intricate details of his mother’s unrealistic, fantastical goals. As Jaime, Ganalon is flawless in his presentation of his character, a conflicted and trapped youngster who is willing to give up his one dream if it means saving his mother.
There are multiple layers embedded into the script of Model Home, and the duality of its purpose – the harsh keeping up with the Joneses commentary on the proverbial American dream and its brutal depiction of mental illness – give the film its strength. Credit where credit is due, however, none of that would mean anything without the talents of its cast – very particularly Curnen and Ganalon – who effectively communicate the intricacies of this deranged tale. Ultimately, Model Home is a minimalist film, one that authors a haunting story that will stick with viewers long after its end credits roll; offering up a tome’s worth of commentary with essentially very little. For this, CrypticRock give Model Home 3.5 of 5 stars.