An uncompromising, unconventional, and deeply messy (in several senses) coming of age tale that heralds an idiosyncratic new voice in British film. Hoard has been divisive during its festival runs, with walkouts aplenty, and some reacting with a kind of sickened bewilderment. It’s looks like a standard British social drama, but could well appeal to genre fans. There’s an edge of both body horror, and the kind of transgressive sexual energy that powers something like Cronenberg’s Crash, or Steven Shainberg‘s Secretary.

We meet Maria as a child (played by Lily-Beau Leach) in 1984, adored but arguably abused by her damaged mother Cynthia (a whirlwind Hayley Squires). Cynthia is a hoarder and there relationship has sprouted from the detritus and filth of their home. Cynthia demands that Maria bring home all her trash from school to add to their ‘catalogue of love’, and the girl is often exhausted in class having been dragged out raiding bins in the evening.

When Cynthia suffers an accident, Maria is moved to the foster care of nurse Michelle (Samantha Spiro), where we pick up Maria’s (now played by Saura Lightfoot-Leon) story in 1994 as she’s about to leave school. Her trauma seems far behind, but the departure of her best friend Laraib (Deba Hekmat) at the behest of her strict father sends her into a kind of limbo. This is filled by the arrival of Michael (Joseph Quinn), one of Michelle’s former wards. He’s a decade older than Maria with a fiancee and a baby on the way, but there’s something broken in his own soul that connects with Maria and a strange, disturbing bond forms between the two.

Luna Carmoon‘s disturbing vision of sexual awakening is far from the sanitised romance of a million romcoms. In Maria, the urge blooms like rot in a dead animal, inextricably linked to a previously closed-off part of her psyche filled with putrefying rat kings and tubs of salvaged chalk. Leightfoot-Leon is fearless and compelling in a demanding role. Even when Maria’s behaviour becomes so bizarre that she remains a little unknowable, the riveting young actor anchors even the wildest moments. Maria and Joseph together form a tectonic nexus of repressed pain that rips down whatever protective walls both had built around themselves. Their scenes together are at times gross, animalistic, and discomfiting.

Therein lies a slight issue. Even though there’s something aloof and otherworldly about Maria, we’re aware of the source of her behaviour. It’s far less clear what demons lurk in Michael’s past that drive him to not merely abet, but to actively participate in Maria’s recidivism. There’s a sense from Quinn’s performance that returning to his former foster home has cracked something within him like a glow stick, and there’s an evidence self-destructive streak, but quite what Maria’s allure is for him remains obscure. Although this is clearly Maria’s story, there could easily have been enough space in the two-hour runtime to chip away a little more at Michael’s back story.

Slight issues with pacing and character motivation aside, Hoard is a wildly confident and unique debut from a filmmaker who was only 24 at the time of filming. For all there’s a definite sense of provocation at times in its defiantly grubby and queasy narrative, there’s also a deeply mature understanding of the complexities of human desire and the unnerving ways in which they can manifest. It absolutely won’t be for everyone – for germphobes it will play like straight-up horror – but those who like their kitchen sink dramas to be full of dirty dishes (and other things that don’t bear thinking about), will appreciate its wild approach. Just be warned you may need a shower afterwards.

In selected cinemas from Fri 17 May 2024