Lyle. 2014. Directed & Written by Stewart Thorndike.
Starring Gaby Hoffmann, Kim Allen, Ashlie Atkinson, Michael Che, Ingrid Jungermann, Wilben Roche, & Rebecca Street.
Not Rated. 65 minutes.
Stewart Thorndike’s 2014 dramatic horror Lyle tells the story of Leah (Gaby Hoffmann) and June (Ingrid Jungermann), a lesbian couple with a little baby girl named Lyle. One day, when Leah’s attention lapses for just minute, Lyle dies in a tragic accident. After the incident, as the couple try putting themselves back together, Leah’s grief and guilt boil over when she believes a neighbour is plotting something sinister.
This is a powerful film, even at only 65 minutes in length. The central performance from Hoffmann is magnetic, the plot itself beyond compelling. Thorndike draws the audience into specifically feminine questions, all the while twisting through a labyrinth of eerie suspense and never allowing us a moment to relax, straddling the line between reality and possible psychosis at every turn. What develops is a story about our society’s patriarchal apparatus, how it dictates certain things for women. Specifically here, the subject concerns motherhood, and what society expects of women in that regard, to the point of utter madness.
One part of the ideological state apparatus is patriarchy, it infiltrates all sorts of institutions; every one of them. Men, and in turn society, go on then to determine what constitutes life for women, even the societal definition of woman. So, what then does the apparatus dictate for women? How she must act and feel in certain situations, she has to respond in the way men expect her to, and this can, many times, lead to internalised misogyny women then go on to perpetuate against themselves or others.
Lyle‘s focus is motherhood and postpartum depression, a phenomenon little talked about openly, even in today’s social media world. Because a woman’s ‘supposed’ to love her child, she’s meant to be happy, rejoicing in her newfound status as mother, revelling in the experience. Despite having had to go through a major psychological and physical transformation along the way. Society says motherhood is a joy, so the mother must be joyful. This is where the film takes off, from this central concept, as we watch the negatives of the construct of motherhood emerge in Leah’s life.
A second character, though no less important, is the landlady Karen (Rebecca Street). She’s symbolic of the pressure women feel, in particular as they age, to have a child. They internalise this pressure, so that it becomes a powder keg of emotion; it becomes a need. This need can easily transform itself into a form of psychosis over time, such as a neurotic need to pretend to be pregnant. Of course there’s more to Karen’s character. Above all, she is another instance of expectation heaped upon mothers by patriarchal attitudes embedded deeply in societal values.
A Noteworthy Image: At a certain point we see the image of Leah covering up the children’s wallpaper in the baby’s old room. Like she’s covering up a ghostly past. This is heavily reminiscent, in a reverse way, of “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, a proto-feminist piece of literature.
What then if a momentary lapse in attention leads to a mother not protecting her child, just for a second or two? What if a mother allows her child to die? Little Lyle dies, and this puts Leah, as well as June, through an existential torment of horrific proportions. In society’s eyes “mothers must protect their children,” which somehow leads to a negation of Leah’s motherhood, like this disqualifies her from her previous status.
The apartment itself becomes a source of grief, the place where Leah and June’s pain resonates. This, again, brings us back to “The Yellow Wallpaper” in ways, too. A haunted house of memory encompasses the couple, one which then creeps further into Leah, driving her to the brink of psychological terror and truly existential horror. Lyle is most compelling because of the ambiguity, start to finish. Trauma and fear and paranoia lead to a scary psychological headspace which Leah inhabits. Is it entirely unwarranted? Could there actually be something sinister happening around her? Is Leah being gaslit? Or, is she seeing reality in an appropriate light? Either way, the consequences are brutal.
In the end, Lyle provides no definite answers. As I mentioned, the ambiguity is ever present, and it’s honestly part of what makes the mysterious atmosphere of the film so credible. You won’t walk away knowing if Leah’s gone mad, or if she’s all too right about the plot she believes has been coming together around her pregnancy. It’s better left that way. Not everything needs a solid answer, and a film such as this comes off as more effective, in a chilling sense, because of its refusal to offer a concrete explanation.
Lyle is a hard look at pregnancy and mental health, a welcomed addition to the canon of motherhood in film. Personally, I see the film as a view on the mental effects of pregnancy, how Leah is disturbed due to the loss of her child, and that everything going on throughout the plot is a converging heap of mental illness at the crossroads of her psyche, leading to an irreversible, mortifying path. Regardless of interpretation, Thorndike’s film – aided by Hoffmann’s fearless, powerful performance – offers a rare glimpse at an issue so many women face, the horrors of postpartum depression compounded by tragedy. More films need to confront the other sides to motherhood, and more women-centred issues. Perhaps it’ll help us men better understand the fears, the ambitions, the lives, the emotions of women. Most of the great art can do just that; in that vein, I’d call Lyle a damn fine piece of modern cinema.