The lasting effects of childhood trauma have long been explored on screen, most recently in Lukas Dhont’s Oscar-nominated Close. But it’s not often that we see one portray it in such a raw light that bares all. Actor-turned-director Veerle Baetens, perhaps best known for her turn in another Academy Award-nominated film The Broken Circle Breakdown, doesn’t hold anything back with her confident feature debut When It Melts, which recently premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival and is screening at the Göteborg Film Festival. Based on Lize Spit’s best-selling 2015 novel The Melting and co-written by Maarten Loix, When It Melts is an unflinching portrait of adolescence, trauma, and womanhood.
At the center of the story is Eva (Charlotte De Bruyne), a socially awkward, lonely, and fragile young woman who works as a photographer’s assistant in Brussels and mostly keeps to herself. When a Facebook post alerts her of a memorial event for the brother of one of her childhood friends, it becomes the catalyst for the events that unfold throughout the duration of the film. As Eva sets off to the town in which she grew up to finally confront the lingering demons of her past, and with a massive block of ice in the back of her car for reasons unbeknownst to viewers until the end, memories from one formative summer in her adolescence arrive to her in waves.
Her past and present begin to run parallel to each other, as the flashbacks capture Eva (Rosa Marchant) when she was a 13-year-old known as one of the “Three Musketeers,” along with her two inseparable best friends, the slightly older Tim (Anthony Vyt) and Laurens (Matthijs Meertens). She becomes a willing participant in a seemingly innocent riddle game against local girls to which she holds the key, but it quickly spirals into something more twisted and increasingly horrific, ultimately culminating in a vicious act against her that throws her life out of orbit. As hormones take over their bodies and their attitudes change as a result, the boys—who rate girls out of 10 yet don’t view Eva in the same light—begin to push her out of the group when she fails to comply with their requests. So she begins to feel as though she needs to prove herself to them through a complex riddle that most are unable to crack.
These events, however, are not the only ones that have left a negative impact on her, with the film giving us a glimpse of Eva’s home life. In the present, she remains close with her younger sister Tess (Femke Van der Steen)—who drops the news that she is moving out of their shared apartment—and has been estranged from her parents for many years. Through the scenes of her upbringing, we learn that this is because she grew up in a negligent household with a mother who turned to alcohol to nurse her emotions, and a controlling father who was prone to outbursts.
Young Eva yearns to be seen and understood, to have a place in society in which she feels loved and valued. As a result of the poor treatment toward her from friends, family, and other people she believed she could trust, she was forced to internalize the mounting pain she experienced. Eva has lived the decade between the past and present harboring these feelings as a result of her community’s complicity, to the point where these events have shaped the person she is now and how she operates in society.
The film hinges on the performances of its actors who play the same characters and their ability to be in sync despite never sharing the screen, and De Bruyne and Marchant are a match made in heaven.
As When It Melts shifts between two periods of time, it frames her childhood within the ostensibly calm and vibrant atmosphere of summer. In contrast, adult Eva’s life is set in the midst of a bleak and gloomy winter, which acts as a reflection of the evolution of her mental state and ongoing struggles. Cinematographer Frederic Van Zandycke beautifully shoots the film, using the contrasting visual schemes to amplify its emotional impact.
The film hinges on the performances of its actors who play the same characters and their ability to be in sync despite never sharing the screen, and De Bruyne and Marchant are a match made in heaven. Though young Eva and adult Eva are polar opposites, the two performers bring them together seamlessly—and not just because they share a striking resemblance. De Bruyne is tasked with portraying a steely, more verbally restrained version of the character, and she does so beautifully while effectively conveying Eva’s inner turmoil as she grapples with her unresolved trauma. Marchant, meanwhile, brings an innocence and vulnerability that is equally impactful. Baetens is empathetic in her approach to creating fully fleshed-out characters, though it does feel at times that Eva is defined by her trauma in the present-set story.
When It Melts is a difficult watch that raises many questions about the necessity of such graphic and disturbing depictions of sexual assault. Though its intentions are clearly not to be harmful as it immerses us in an atmosphere that is wholly unsettling, especially as the slow unraveling leads to a devastating final act, it does cause one to wonder if a film needs to ask its child actors to be involved in such situations, regardless of whether precautions were in place.
While When It Melts isn’t a thriller in the traditional sense, it balances elements of the genre with a brutally honest and relatable coming-of-age tale about the cruelty of youth and girlhood. Despite the pacing and lurking implications that lead you to expect another stomach-churning event to eventually occur, Baetens creates something that remains gripping. For better or worse, When It Melts is a work that is unsparing in its approach toward diving into the darkest corners of humanity, in a way that will remain with you long after the credits roll.
Read our interview with director Veerle Baetens here.