I have really enjoyed a number of films out of this year’s Popcorn Frights selection, but by far the biggest surprise for me was an absolutely delightful, quirky horror/comedy from writer Piers Ashworth (Blithe Spirit) and director Martin Owen. If there’s one movie of the festival selection that screams instant cult classic, The Loneliest Boy in the World is the surefire winner. Max Harwood, best known for his transformative performance as Jamie in Amazon Prime musical, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, channels the outsider in us all through his depiction of troubled, kind-hearted Oliver, who just needs a friend. With shades of movies such as May, Warm Bodies, and Little Monsters, The Loneliest Boy in the World is still unlike anything I have seen before.
Set in Hubris, USA, in October of 1987, two case workers—Margot (Ashley Benson, Pretty Little Liars, Spring Breakers) and Julius (Evan Ross, The United States vs. Billie Holiday, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay)—are closely monitoring troubled Oliver by checking up on him consistently. Fresh out of a psychiatric institute, Oliver is still not over the “accident” that claimed the life of his mother. Now, at 18, Oliver lives in the family home he once shared with the woman, carefully watching all his mom’s favorite shows on television so he can visit her grave and recount them in painstaking detail. Today, Margot and Julius bring some bad news. In just seven days, if Oliver cannot prove he is of sound mind and at least trying to make friends, Julius will have him shipped off back to the institute. “Be natural, be truthful, be you,” Margot advises. She seems to have Oliver’s best interests at heart, and I officially feel old seeing Ashley Benson in a matronly role.
As anyone who has ever attended high school can tell you, making friends is no easy feat. Oliver being the quirky outsider that he is becomes the target of various bullies around town. New girl Chloe (Tallulah Haddon, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch) connects with Oliver fleetingly before he overshares with the story of his mom’s passing. In a hilarious flashback featuring a classic, colorful depiction of white picket fence Americana, Oliver trips over a television wire that was situated far too close to the pool in the midst of taking a Polaroid of his mom. The result is a jolt of electricity that ejects his mother from said pool before violently staking her straight through the chest with their friendly lawn gnome’s sharp point.
Oliver’s TV set eventually goes wonky during an episode of Alf, leaving him alone in a big house watching the television static. When Julius and Margot make their latest visit, the lack of progress is apparent. Just when it seems Oliver has hit a dead end, he overhears a grieving mother mourning her son, Mitch (Hero Fiennes Tiffin, After, Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince), after his tragic car accident. She says he was “everybody’s friend,” and this eulogy sparks an idea within Oliver. At the encouragement of Margot, he returns to the cemetery, digs up Mitch, and drags him home. Oliver props up Mitch on the couch with pillows and opens up to him. The situational humor with this dead body is extremely effective—at one point, Oliver has a Grateful Dead sweater on Mitch, while at another he puts shades over him as a TV repairman comes over to fix the “dead” television set.
As Oliver bonds with Mitch’s body, he realizes that he has finally found someone to listen to him. Local gravediggers that Oliver has become friendly with indicate they have a sudden flux of newcomers due to a plane crash—this drives Oliver to his next great idea. A whole new family, including mom (Susan Wokoma, Enola Holmes, Misfits), dad (Ben Miller, Bridgerton, Johnny English), and sister (Zenobia Williams), are dug up to join Mitch on the couch. Oliver accidentally hits a little dog named Ninja on the way home, so she gets tossed into the family photo for good measure. Snapping a couch Polaroid to commemorate the occasion, Oliver awakens the next morning to all of corpses now very much alive. Not only that, but they easily fill right into the roles he had assigned for them. Their bodies decaying, Oliver may nevertheless have finally found the love and acceptance from a family he has always craved to have. Injecting this powerful element of magical realism, the script from Piers Ashworth (whose own Blithe Spirit dealt with similar life-after-death themes in a hilarious manner) elevates The Loneliest Boy in the World into memorable, whimsical, almost Beetlejuice-esque territory.
From the point when this zombie family awakens, everything changes for Oliver. He gains a newfound confidence and sense of self. Mitch, the lovable lug and epitome of what a best friend should be, gives him dating tips while mummy-wrapped so as not to expose his decomposing face. Each family member plays under the guise of Mitch’s visiting parents and sister to any outsiders—interactions between the living and the dead are delightful to watch unfold. Powered by this newfound shift in tone, I became completely smitten with The Loneliest Boy in the World. They just don’t make mainstream movies like this anymore, which only further emphasizes the importance of indie filmmaking on telling vital, heartwarming stories like that of a boy being reborn through his loyal, zombified chosen family. The movie’s dedication to Cherry (“our best pup”) drives home that the themes and content are deeply personal. We may not be able to revive the dead, but The Loneliest Boy in the World awakened something deep within my soul that spoke to me more than words can say.
The Loneliest Boy in the World screened at 2022’s Popcorn Frights Film Festival.