Reflecting on our past life can yield troubling memories. However, those who suffered as children are unlikely to see their lives through a positive lens. Even when we try to overcome these obstacles, the world rarely lets us move on in productive ways. First-time director Veerle Baetens uses her debut When It Melts to showcase the darkness some struggle to escape.

A young woman named Eva (Charlotte De Bruyne) struggles to maintain relationships as an adult. Her sister decides to move out of their apartment, and Eva feels truly alone. One day, she sees a post on social media for a celebration of Jan, a former friend who passed away in her childhood. Eva begins to remember her younger self (Rosa Marchant) as a member of the “Three Musketeers,” which included Jan’s little brother Tim (Anthony Vyt) and their friend Laurens (Matthijs Meertens). However, during the summer after Jan’s death, their friendship shatters.

A still from When It Melts by Veerle Baetens, an official selection of the World Dramatic Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

As the story unfolds, it’s clear that When It Melts transforms from a summer of nostalgia and fun into a nightmare status. De Bruyne delivers a marvelous performance, showcasing anger and the anxiety of presenting oneself in uncomfortable social situations. It’s clear something horrible happened in her past, especially after she runs into two men from her past. Others push her to stop holding a grudge, but the anger is palpable. While her family and friends may not understand her feelings towards her former friends, she’s established clear boundaries, and one of the few high points in the film comes when she pushes back on her sister’s efforts to force time together.

Much of When It Melts revolves around men and sexual violence, making it difficult to watch. There’s not even a single instance, but instead habitual discretions. The “boys will be boys” ideologies are maintained as the norm. Worst of all, When It Melts reminds us that there’s a strong correlation between the men who get away with sex crimes and the infrastructure that protects them. The frustrations only compound when it’s clear that women are some of the protectors.

Baetens allows her actors to develop their characters with grace. The two versions of Eva seem to contain echoes of one another, but never mimic. Yet by letting each performer put their own marks on Eva, When It Melts builds to incredible crescendos. Furthermore, Baetens always puts the performers in a position to succeed. This can be a difficult task when mixing adult and child performers, especially when sexuality is engrained in the text. Yet Baetens never exploits anyone, especially the children. Instead, she correctly gives them space to process the tragedies of their life, and show the weight of each decision.

When It Melts Sundance Film Festival 2023  Veerle Baetens
A still from When It Melts by Veerle Baetens, an official selection of the World Dramatic Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of When It Melts comes in its edit. Spanning nearly two hours, with a relatively straightforward story, the back-and-forth flashback grows tiresome. Very little about the actual narrative surprises. While cutting between the two timelines helps us understand where Eva comes from, her anxieties and PTSD clearly affect her in every aspect of her life.

This makes the ending less of a surprise and more of a trudge toward violence that we cannot avoid. It’s both incredibly tragic, and hard to watch, making the two-hour runtime far more of a slog than one might expect. However, with powerful performances throughout the cast, When It Melts delivers on its dramatic heft. Baetens not only handles the tension well, but understands how to capitalize on the film’s best moments.

Alan’s Rating: 7/10

What do you think of When It Melts? Let us know in the comments below! When It Melts is currently playing at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.

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