Alex Herron’s Leave is a snoozy tale about lost daughters, Norwegian black metal and inaccessible terrors. Writer Thomas Moldestad unfavorably balances a young woman’s search for her mother with scares that barely register, to the point where its tone falls coldly flat. Conversational horrors become the main attraction as eyes dart and characters squirm when secrets from abroad unravel, which becomes tiresome since the spookier injections fail to produce spikes of excitement. Leave tells a story about the monsters of humanity, but is shy about terrifying its audience—a tragic flaw that cuts the genre’s volume like unplugging an amplifier mid-performance.
Alicia von Rittberg stars as Hunter White, who was found as a baby in a Massachusetts cemetery wrapped in cloth with satanic symbol designs. As an adult, she tells her non-biological father—the cop who found her—that she’s heading off for school, but that’s a lie. Hunter books a trip to Norway, hoping to find her birth mother, who might be Norwegian rock star Cecilia (Ellen Dorrit Petersen). There’s only one way to find out, and Hunter will do whatever it takes, no matter how expensive, time-consuming or unexpectedly dangerous.
Leave is an interrogation of Hunter’s family tree, starting in a music club, then navigating to the Norwegian countryside. One by one, Hunter confronts deadpan loose ends that bring her closer to answers. There’s a junior detective element that never catches on or allures as Hunter starts interviewing murderers who might have killed her mother, or relatives whose hospitality raises eyebrows. Herron embraces the awkwardness of Hunter’s fish-out-of-water situation, which should be profoundly uncomfortable, but isn’t enough to overcome a rotating door of played-straight side characters doubling as mediocre suspects.
While this happens, Hunter starts seeing a figure—possibly a smoldering little girl. She’s the horror additive supposed to make us believe that something wants Hunter to stop, delivered without enthusiasm. The supernatural horror elements feel shoehorned into Leave, only there to fulfill basic haunted requirements—to try to spice up Hunter’s vacation. But Moldestad’s screenplay isn’t proportional when balancing its dry conversations about people hiding obvious clues or malicious intentions and the shadowy figure, the latter of which always feels like it’s simply checking a horror box.
Similarly, Herron never cracks the code between Hunter’s dull search for diaries and Leave’s more frightful crescendos. His cast turns the screen into a barrier with their droll yet lifeless presentations. Leave is begging for an adrenaline shot, even considering the third act’s reveal, which ties to the cult-like imagery Hunter researches. Norway might present some idyllic Scandinavia shooting locations, but Leave fails to capitalize on even its spiciest scenes when Hunter encounters imminent danger. The ponderously one-note experience glides from start to finish, entirely without an X factor.
Leave sounds more interesting on paper than its execution ever allows. “An adopted girl’s hunt through Norway’s metal scene to find her birth mother” is vastly more exciting than this ho-hum amateur detective routine through the countryside. What should be a chilly thriller is a clunky mystery, icy to the touch. Performances feel frozen and suspense provides no warming comfort. It’s a tonal anomaly that spikes no highs nor stumbles into valleys, but just floats through a less-than-affecting heritage conspiracy.
Director: Alex Herron
Writer: Thomas Moldestad
Starring: Alicia von Rittberg, Herman Tømmeraas, Stig R. Amdam, Ellen Dorrit Petersen
Release Date: March 17, 2023 (Shudder)
Matt Donato is a Los Angeles-based film critic currently published on SlashFilm, Fangoria, Bloody Disgusting, and anywhere else he’s allowed to spread the gospel of Demon Wind. He is also a member of the Hollywood Critics Association. Definitely don’t feed him after midnight.