It is with some surprise that Jenella Fern Shreaves (Leven Rambin) shows back up in Howell County, even on the occasion of her father’s funeral in “Lost Child.” Leaving years before to join the army as a way to escape the Ozarks, full of crawling critters she couldn’t stand of both the insect and human variety, Fern doesn’t receive many thank yous for her service upon her return, having burned most bridges, including that with her brother Billy (Taylor John Smith), when she got on a bus and figured she’d never look back. Still, no matter where she runs, she now can’t escape the memories of war, making her old home only as treacherous as anywhere else and having grown up there, the familiar threats are actually of some comfort since she’s dealt with them before.
However, about a half-hour into “Lost Child,” the unknown presents itself in the form of Cecil (Landon Edwards), a young boy Fern finds alone in the forest with no trace of family to speak of, and it’s then that the film announces that in spirit, if not with a title card, it’s a Ramaa Mosley film. For those lucky enough to have caught her 2012 debut “The Brass Teapot,” you will know what this means. After previously telling the tale of a young couple (Juno Temple and Michael Angarano) who discover a magic kettle that begins to fill with money every time they endure physical pain, Mosley and co-writer Tim Macy have crafted a story steeped in Southern Gothic lore, drawing out Fern’s internal demons while suggesting there may be real ones out there to fear as well and once again confirming Mosley’s considerable gift for making the unbelievable feel a part of a very real world.
A lean and mean character study that manages to be wondrous at the same time, “Lost Child” boasts a simmering performance from Rambin that is constantly on the edge of boiling over, making it nearly impossible to take your eyes off her, though Edwards’ turn as Cecil is equally captivating, contributing to a push-pull relationship where the duo force each other to face their fears of the unknown once more and in doing so, takes the audience someplace new. Mosley ensures that one is as overwhelmed by the forest setting as much as the characters, drawing on evocative cinematography from Darin Moran and intricate sound design and as readily as Rambin allows an audience into the anguish Fern suffers from PTSD from the emotions you can see crossing her face, the director also effectively renders a number of sensory experiences that allow one inside her head, illustrating how tightly the past continues to have a hold on her.
Still, the warm embrace that “Lost Child” has for its abandoned protagonists proves more gripping, refreshingly conscientious of characters you don’t often see treated on the big screen with such respect, and for all the fantastical elements that Mosley brings in, the film’s most bewitching quality may be how much compassion she has for the hard reality that the Ferns and Cecils of the world must endure.