Obliquely charting the terror, loneliness, and liberation of navigating a cold, callous grown-up world, St. Nick follows nameless brother and sister runaways (played by real-life siblings Tucker and Savanna Sears) who take up impermanent residence in an empty Texas house. David Lowery’s debut feature is long on silence and laden with a mood of oppressive dread, which, like the ever-stormy sky, hovers around its young protagonists, he 12 and she eight, as they take refuge in their ramshackle new abode, the boy stringing up a hanging-log trap against intruders and collecting twigs for wood-stove kindling while the girl draws with crayons found in the same dumpster where they scavenge for food. Why they’ve fled home remains a mystery, though the sight of the boy tearing up a happy family portrait (despite his sister’s objections) and stating that he sometimes thinks of time travel to “the past, when it was all normal,” imply a troubled home life as the root cause. As with his film’s entirety, however, Lowery doesn’t press this point, choosing instead to linger in the quiet of the children’s tenuous situation, one that the writer-director dramatizes as an adult-free fairy tale of abandonment and loss, as well as—in the sight of the girl struggling to ride a giant bike—one about the difficulty of maturation.
St. Nick‘s evocation of a not-quite-real rural America defined by stark, going-to-seed natural beauty both faintly and somewhat self-consciously recalls Terrence Malick’s early work, a connection furthered by a subtle linking—as in the sight of the boy scraping paint off a wall while his sister scratches at a knee scab—of characters and their imposing environment. Yet Lowery’s film, which seems just as indebted, at least spiritually, to Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, conveys its own unique impression of juvenile anxieties and isolation, aided in part by wonderfully expressive performances from its two leads. Within a frame that’s always expertly controlled and reflective of its protagonists’ states of mind, the director’s images (set to melancholy piano and strings, or an ominous wall of hollow atmospheric sound) cry out with silent dismay: the kids walking beneath a cold, gray sky on an abandoned field, a foreground tree’s branches looming over them; a box of skeleton bones that the girl dubs her new dog, Donut; the girl’s hurried, distressed flight from a playground birthday party she’s impulsively crashed; and the boy sharing a knowing glance with a man in a church stealing a statue of the Virgin Mary, their kindred misery left unspoken but understood.
With few conversational encounters, Lowery’s dialogue can exhibit a tad too much italicized import, but the general lack of articulated sentiments lends the proceedings a suggestive power. This is most hauntingly true with regards to a meeting between the boy and a woman (Mara Lee Miller) on a porch playing an acoustic guitar ballad about a dead father, her song’s sadness (and the fact that she later states that her dad taught her to play) lingering in the subsequent stillness of the night as the boy slinks down to sleep against a house’s outer wall, his head downturned in sorrow over his lack of a father to either mourn or teach him anything of value. A run-in with the house’s owner, and then a developing cough for one of the kids, inevitably leads to more narrative forward progress, but St. Nick never bothers with much plot in the first place, much less overwrought melodramatic manipulations. Instead, it idles along with jangled nerves and a heavy heart, recognizing the need for every boy and girl to grow up—one way or another—on their own, and the simultaneous fear and joy that such an inevitable path inspires.