Jonas Govaerts’ directorial debut Cub, or Welp as it’s known in its native Flemish, is basically your standard boy-who-cried-wolf story. This is literally the main conceit of the film. And yet Cub has a heart that elevates it above generalization, helped along by its unique cub scout camping trip and the good acting from its protagonist Sam (Maurice Luijten). Govaerts infuses the film with a few different influences, from its Wolf Creek-esque serial killer to its werewolf tropes; even then, though, Cub defies categorization, and ends up being quite a fun film because of its simplicity.
The screenplay, co-written by Govaerts and Roel Mondelaers, finds Sam heading off to Cub Scout camp with a group of boys and their troop leaders Peter (Stef Aerts), Kris (Jan Hammenecker), and Jasmijn (Evelien Bosmans). It’s in a neck of the woods where locals stay away; it’s known as being cursed, and there’s a legend about Kai (or a wolf man) that haunts the area. But the campers stay anyway because they’re Cub Scouts, not to be deterred by some eerie legend.
It’s interesting to note that Cub, in Belgium, received an All Ages rating, much to the chagrin of many people. It is, after all, quite a violent movie, and it features some nudity from Bosmans as well as lots of strong language. And the Flemish Boy Scouts derided Cub, saying that it’s best to boycott it, especially with younger children. The All Ages rating doesn’t bother me, because Cub is, despite its excesses, a movie just as much for children as it is for adults. The thing that interests me more is the Boy Scouts’ condemnation.
That’s because Cub isn’t a very good advertisement for kids joining exclusive groups like Boy Scouts. Govaerts depicts an organization that often condones, or at least ignores, social bullying, situations that Sam finds himself in again and again. It doesn’t come from just the kids; Peter, as troop leader, also eggs on his Scouts by singling out Sam every chance he gets. Sam is different, an outsider, and though Govaerts uses this theme to highlight the similarities between him the wolf boy (Gill Eeckelaert) in the woods, he is also implicating organizations like Boy Scouts in allowing bullying to occur in the first place.
Cub doesn’t jump right into the horror. It wades in slowly, first characterizing Sam as the odd one out and then showing his fascination with the Kai legend. Govaerts wants the audience to recognize that humans, especially ostracized ones, are closer to the wolf boy’s animal instincts than on first appearance, and he does so by building up to Sam’s violent tendencies.
There’s a particular scene that I won’t spoil that does this with expertise. It’s a moment where Sam, partnering with Kai, is given the chance to exact his own brand of vengeance. Cub offers the viewer this experience without statement – it neither condemns nor condones Sam’s actions. That’s important for the film’s finale.
Govaerts refrains from giving the audience much backstory on Sam, Kai, or the murderous man Kai lives with in the woods. There are times where Cub attempts to make parallels with Sam and Kai’s lives – we know that Sam has a foster mother, but other than that, little about his past is revealed. Like Kai, Sam is somewhat orphaned, and that leads the film to its ultimate conclusion. But Cub is a bit too lacking in its characters’ motivations, especially the poacher – while the audience can infer for themselves the relationships here, the movie leaves them too vague.
But that doesn’t take away from Cub‘s skill at maneuvering around a tired concept. Govaerts freshens things up with some eerie scenes, and forest traps add inventiveness to the death toll. The idea is unique, and Cub never fails to impress despite the lack of charaterization; leaving those motivations blank forces the viewer to draw their own conclusions about Sam and what makes someone like Kai.
Cub seems, on the surface, like a horror film with humor, but by the end it has lost all of that lightness in exchange for a dark moral tale. Govaerts draws thematic depth from his Cub Scout plot, from the bullying that takes place in those groups, and from the toll that that dehumanization takes on a person. Despite its child-like ideas on the surface, Cub sinks its teeth in.
Click next for the Blu-Ray review.