Maybe it’s just me, but it was hard growing up as a girl. There were times that I wish I wasn’t one but in a complaining, woe-is-me sort of way. “Why did I have to go through puberty so obviously and brutally? Why do I have to bleed FOR THE REST OF MY LIFE? Why could boys get away with that and I couldn’t?” And especially, “Why is this expected of me simply because I am a girl?”
I like to think Gretel asked these questions, too.
The fairy tale Osgood Perkins (The Blackcoat’s Daughter) gathers you around isn’t quite like the one you remember. The script written by Rob Hayes circles in on two recently parent-less children and their simple mission of finding food, finding shelter, and finding purpose. IT and IT: Chapter II actress Sophia Lillis portrays Gretel, the caretaker of young Hansel. After braving the forest and their own conjured fears, they happen upon the looming cottage and the witch within it.
The second half steers away from the glossy candy and seasoned cakes imagery that starkly comes to mind when you think of those lost, hungry children. The film heads into dark territory with anecdotes of lore, curses, and enchantment. There’s forests that hold beautiful nightmares and stunning stills of witches waiting. The black, smoking house is captor of both splendors and ruins. But beneath the allure of the titular witch’s kitchen, something else smoldered.
The dynamic between Gretel and her brother, and Gretel and the Witch, are both the same and not the same. Both relationships give the illusion of love but both are selfish in their wants. Her brother needs what he needs and expects his sister to forever be his savior, although Gretel does not wish to be a bearer of children and/or burdens. In the film, she explained to Hansel something along the lines of, “If someone wanted children, I suspect they would have made some of their own.” The Witch instills in Gretel a sense of pride for her gifts and stokes her to own womanhood instead of bearing it like a bad back. She inherently wants her to be just like her and to choose the paths she has. But what the hell does Gretel want? Absolutely none of either.
Gretel is found throughout the film discovering and growing, while Hansel fixates on pasts and what he can control, mainly the destruction of small trees with his ax, and what he can see. As the strain between sister and brother tightens and the bond between crone and maiden is made clear, an offer is made. I saw the offer as the difference between being told you’re free and actually being free. The weight of her old and new world has suddenly engulfed her. Luckily, Gretel sees right through it and finds her own way to harness love as a tool, and not as a weapon.
It was wondrous to not see the self-sacrificing woman on screen. It’s as if this character knew that no matter what choice she made, it would be criticized. So, why not do what she wants? (A prime example of this is in the early minutes of the film and damn, it was refreshing to see.)
Gretel and Hansel is a message to women that men are not their burden to bear. Daughters who are unwanted by their mothers are not less because of that sobering truth. It’s a testament that women are not angels and they are not devils. They can be both because they have internal scales to feel such a balance. This isn’t a story about men’s failures and triumphs. This is a story of women choosing a path and commanding the impact their footsteps may have upon it.