Venice 2023 review: Hoard (Luna Carmoon)

“A small-scale film that has its weaknesses but is ultimately a satisfying portrait of dealing with loss and growing up in the foster care system.”

Neat freaks, look away. Because at the start of Luna Carmoon’s debut feature Hoard, playing at this year’s Settimana della Critica, we meet a young Maria (Lily-Beau Leach) living with her single mother Cynthia (Hayley Squires) in what could best be described as a literal wasteland. Maria’s mom is a hoarder who rummages through the trash to find things she can use for… for what, really? Stuff is piled high throughout the house, yet mother and child are unperturbed, even if Maria is bullied at school for her smelly clothes. When her mother suddenly falls ill and social services see the state in which Maria is living, the two are separated.

Cut to roughly a decade later, and Maria (Saura Lightfoot Leon) is still living with Michelle (Samantha Spiro), the woman who has fostered her since that fateful night she last saw her mother. A bit of chaos inherited from her younger years still rules Maria’s mind, and the chaos only increases when one of Michelle’s former foster children, Michael (Joseph Quinn), comes to live with them for a few weeks. When Maria’s best friend Laraib (Deba Hekmat) is forced to leave, and she then unceremoniously and unexpectedly gets handed the ashes of her deceased mother, Maria short-circuits and starts to show increasingly erratic behaviour.

Carmoon uses her kitchen sink drama to delve into topics like grief and mental illness, the go-to topics of arthouse cinema these days. Though a bit chaotic and as overstuffed as Cynthia and Maria’s home, and with pacing issues in the first half hour threatening to almost let the film collapse under its weight, Hoard manages to keep its charm going on account of its cast’s fine work and Carmoon picking up the pace after Maria’s mother exits the film. Lightfoot Leon and Hekmat in particular as two foul-mouthed, rebellious teens are a joy to watch in a fully believable friendship that gets cut short.

The mutual attraction between Maria and Michael is less tangible, mostly because Michael is rather undefined as a character, his motivations never really clear. Carmoon, who also wrote the screenplay, doesn’t really seem to be sure what to do with the character, leaving his actions wishy-washy and all over the place. Elsewhere Carmoon’s direction is solid and outside of a few luminous moments fairly muted, a good choice given the cramped environment of Michelle’s small terrace house that is the setting for many of the more conflict-driven scenes.

This intimacy is something that Carmoon uses in her favour, because it allows her to home in on Maria’s grief, triggered by the finality of her natural mother’s death hitting her when the ashes are dropped on her doorstep. Her determination to recreate the safe cocoon of childhood in order to be able to deal with her loss is played with steely determination by Lightfoot Leon, who turns in an excellent performance as a young adult on the emotional brink of finally letting go. Her final “I love you” directed at Michelle hits hard as a result. It’s an emotional ending (before a somewhat ambiguous coda) to a small-scale film that has its weaknesses but is ultimately a satisfying portrait of dealing with loss and growing up in the foster care system.