Actor-turned-filmmaker Veerle Baetens certainly isn’t scared of a challenge. Her debut feature When It Melts is a gruelling riddle that itself hinges on a riddle: why is a withdrawn, haunted young woman lugging a massive block of ice into the boot of her car? The answer lies in a particularly cruel summer endured by Eva (Charlotte De Bruyne) 13 years earlier. Baetens skilfully splits the story into a poignant and cruel diptych that will undoubtedly prove too challenging for many audiences.

Charlotte, block of ice in tow, returns to her home village of Bovenmeer. The catalyst is a Facebook post from an old friend who is throwing a memorial party for his brother who had died many years previously, but whose shadow loomed large even back when young Charlotte (Rosa Marchant) was 13 years old and one of the ‘Three Musketeers’ with her best pals Tim (Anthony Vyt) and Laurens (Matthijs Meertens). Something has snapped in Charlotte and there are some scores relating to an ugly guessing game played by the trio she needs to settle.

Young Charlotte already has it pretty tough. A family dinner to rival Hereditary paints a messy picture of a cold and distant father and an alcoholic mother. The shy, awkward, slightly tomboyish girl is also finding her relationship with her two friends shifting in ways she struggles to understand. She’s developed a crush on Tim, but he’s busy rating other girls out of 10 and he and Laurens are getting up to things that definitely don’t include Charlotte. The bright, hazy, and nostalgic tones of cinematographer Frederic Van Zandycke feel bitterly ironic. As Beatens cuts to the wintry present, it’s easy to see why the adult Charlotte would be troubled, even before the riddle is revealed.

When It Melts goes to incredibly upsetting places, and opinion will be divided over what Beatens chooses to show and how this material is framed. For the most part, it’s with a delicate touch that coaxes an incredible performance from Rosa Marchant. The young actress demonstrates a protean maturity that goes through guilelessness, spite, guilt, and terror, sometimes in the same scene. It’s a fraught, brittle, and heartbreaking spectacle. De Bruyne is very good at showing all these emotions spinning in an internal centrifuge, but Marchant is the real key and any false note would gut the heart from the narrative and leave behind a lurid jigsaw puzzle.

A lurking landmine beneath the idea of childhood innocence, When It Melts would be harrowing even if the subject matter had an adult at its core. Even if one commends Baetens’ for her boldness in taking on such a project, and admire the dexterity with which she handles it, it remains a tough sell and a hard one to recommend to most people. Those who dislike it will really take against it, and those who think it a piece of brutal art will be unlikely to be willing to subject themselves to it again.

Screening as part of Sundance Festival 2023