I watched Steven Adam Renkovish's debut feature The Awakening of Lilith for the first time, quite literally, only a few hours after attending my mother's funeral. It was my second significant loss in one week, the other being a longtime friend who passed away at the age of 54 due to ongoing complications related to our shared diagnosis of Spina Bifida.
I watched The Awakening of Lilith again.
A second time. A third time.
I'm not sure if I was trying, and most certainly failing, to set aside my own grief in favor of a simply critical review. All I know is, I suppose, that Renkovish has a long history of exploring the world of human emotions and human grief and the human experience through his short films and The Awakening of Lilith looks and feels like his most complete experience yet. It's a simultaneously intimate yet horrifying film, a world that feels familiar yet also a world that feels miles and miles away.
The film stars longtime Renkovish collaborator Brittany Renée as Lilith, a young woman who looks worn and weary and whose grief is palpable and indescribable. Lilith is amidst great grief, though the dark mystery that envelopes her remains largely unexplained other than its impact on her increasingly fragile heart and mind. We don't know the details, not really, yet the details are almost irrelevant as it's the impact of those details on Lilith that really matters.
The impact, it would appear, is devastating.
Brittany Renée has always been an intriguing actress. Deeply introspective yet outrageously expressive, Renée has only three film credits to her name with all three being alongside longtime friend Renkovish. The two work brilliantly together and there's never any doubt in The Awakening of Lilith that Renée is completely in touch with Renkovish's vision for the film and has an almost jarring understanding of the internal and external workings of Lilith.
This is a low-budget indie project and there's no doubt that Renkovish stretches the absolute outer limits of what a low-budget effort can do, however, in a myriad of ways The Awakening of Lilith benefits from those very same limitations that would add up to failure for many filmmakers. Renkovish has always had a knack for surrounding himself with similarly minded artists who value integrity above all else and there's artistic integrity woven into the very tapestry of The Awakening of Lilith.
Truthfully, I had a few doubts about The Awakening of Lilith. It wasn't because I doubted Renkovish or Renée or anyone else here. It was simply a wondering, if you will, if Renkovish's experimental nature could fully come alive in a feature project and an honest wondering if he could pull off, well, normalcy.
I needn't have wondered. While The Awakening of Lilith still finds Renkovish comfortable with darkness and shadows and enveloping intimacy, there's an uncomfortable, at times squirm-inducing normalcy that felt familiar and awkward and weird and very real coming on the heels of my own grief experiences and my own inability to, at times, figure out if it's me that's not right or if it's the world around me.
There is so much to love here. Beyond Brittany Renée's best performance to date, Justin Livingston gives the film a sort of wavy, searching normalcy as Noah while Tiffany Majors Doby is stellar as Emily. Mary Miles Kokotek complements Renée sublimely as Mother and Rachel Sims Jackson, Christiana Wilson, and Jessie Roberts all have moments to shine. If you look closely, you'll even catch members of the Renkovish can with mother Lorraine and sister Ashley, both also co-producers, appearing as neighbors in the film.
Regular Renkovish contributor Thomas Springer's lensing is mesmerizing, haunting, and exhilarating simultaneously while Seth Anderson makes a memorable feature composing debut and beautifully amplifies all of the film's emotional rhythms.
It's difficult to describe The Awakening of Lilith without giving it all away and that would be inexcusable. It's a film that explores the spoken and unspoken pathways of the human experience and the darkest darks of grief and everything that comes with it. It's a film that I likely shouldn't have watched in the hours following my mother's funeral and only a few days before another dear friend's funeral yet, I'd dare say, it's also a film that gives permission to feel what needs to be felt and think what needs to be thought.
The Awakening of Lilith is a safe place in life's unsafest moments.
The Awakening of Lilith is, for those aware of Renkovish's work, a revisit and a companion to his short film Fugue where we first met Lilith and first became introduced to her journey. Inspired more than a little by the unexpected traumatic death of one of his own best friends, Renkovish's Fugue was dark and shadowy and intimate and extraordinarily meditative. The Awakening of Lilith expands this universe without compromising everything that was so exceptional about Fugue. It's not so much that The Awakening of Lilith helps us understand Lilith more. Instead, it's that The Awakening of Lilith invests us so deeply in Lilith's experiences that it becomes impossible to not love her and to not want to be a part of her journey.
Grief, in all its weirdness, is both one of the most extraordinarily solitary experiences that life has to offer and one that also demands community. Expertly weaving shadows and light, light and shadows, Renkovish immerses us in a world both horrifying and humane and lonely and universal. Brittany Renée, quietly yet beautifully, brings everything to life with a rawness and wonder and vulnerability that draws you in and simply doesn't let you go.
The Awakening of Lilith is, indeed, an awakening.
As a film critic, for the most part it's my job to remain objective in my critical musings and to serve up something resembling a competent critical analysis.
But, you know what?
There are those films that demand something else.
They demand attention. They demand immersion. They demand surrender. They demand the same level of authenticity we critics demand from filmmakers and actresses and tech crews.
The Awakening of Lilith is such a film.
I surrendered. So will you.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic