Louisiana-born, Los Angeles-based filmmaker Ramaa Mosley follows up her debut, the 2013 comedy The Brass Teapot, with the intense gothic thriller Lost Child. After serving two tours in the army, Fern Shreaves (Leven Rambin), upon the death of her father, returns to the dilapidated Ozarks home where she was raised. Suffering from PTSD — she insists she will never pick up a gun again — she has come back primarily to reconnect with her troubled, missing brother, Billy (Taylor John Smith). But instead she finds and takes in a mysterious young boy, Cecil (Landon Edwards), who appears to be living in the vast forest by her house. The polite ragamuffin child doesn’t say much about where he’s from, but when strange things start happening to Fern, Dr. Gill (Mark Ingalsbe) and dangerous forest-dwelling nut job Fig Karl (Kip Collins) warn her that Cecil is a tatterdemalion, a demonic figure literally sucking the life out of her. Fern becomes friendly with Mike Rivers (Jim Parrack), a sweet-natured bartender and child services worker who pooh-poohs the local folklore and thinks it best if Cecil continues to stay with her to avoid placement in foster care. But Fern is not used to making the right choices, either for herself or others, as events reach a fever pitch.
Mosley cowrote and produced the film with her Brass Teapot partner, Tim Macy, whose father lives in West Plains, Missouri, where Lost Child — originally titled Tatterdemalion — was shot, primarily with nonprofessional actors on an extremely low budget of $15,000. The film is beautifully photographed by Darin Moran, turning the forest into a character unto itself. Rambin, who played Glimmer in The Hunger Games and Athena Bezzerides on True Detective, gets deep into her role as Fern, who is desperately searching for some kind of family to hold on to, her eyes in almost constant motion. Arkansas native Edwards is exceptional as Cecil, reminiscent of Lucas Black in American Gothic, keeping viewers on edge as he harbors dark secrets. Named Best Narrative Feature at the 2018 Kansas City Film Festival, Lost Child — the title could describe several figures in the movie — evokes such works as Robert Mulligan’s The Other, Mervyn LeRoy’s The Bad Seed, Jodie Foster’s Nell, and François Truffaut’s The Wild Child while feeling wholly original. Mosley maintains a creepy, tense atmosphere every step of the way, investigating ideas of family and responsibility, enhanced by David Baron and Chris Maxwell’s subtle, revealing score and southern country-folk songs by Arkansas native Ashley McBryde. (The final song over the closing credits is sung by Rambin.) A twist on a familiar trope, Lost Child is fresh and contemporary while solidly connecting to our ancient human fears of the forest — and weird children.