When The Boy was released in January 2016, I have to admit that I willingly skipped it. January has become sort of a dumping ground for studio horror, most of which is PG-13 and might do ok business for a weekend or two but disappears from the cultural consciousness pretty quickly thereafter. I expected the same from The Boy, which was marketed as a "creepy doll" movie and the kind of thing designed to attract high schoolers who think "that shit is freaky" rather than horror fans. There's nothing wrong with going after the teenage market -- horror movies have been doing it since the 1950s -- but it just seemed like the sort of film that offered nothing for me.
I was wrong. Generic title aside, The Boy is really good. There's a lot of stuff to like about it, from the cinematography (from Tobe Hooper collaborator Daniel Pearl) to the gothic atmosphere to the genuine creepiness of the doll to the surprising final act. But the real reason the movie works is Lauren Cohan, here in her first starring role after breaking out on The Walking Dead. Appearing in almost every single scene in the film, Cohan sells everything she is asked of, from the silliness of the premise to the genuine terror when things start to get weird. This is a movie that could have cast any generic actor turning in a generic performance in the lead, just counting on the presence of the creepy doll to sell tickets. (For some reason, young people in particular want to go see creepy doll movies; for evidence of this, look no further than the box office returns on Annabelle.) Instead, The Boy gets this great, nuanced, incredibly human performance from Cohan, who elevates the whole thing every time she's on camera. And that's a lot.
The movie takes a few turns from there -- particularly one big one -- that I won't spoil in case anyone decides to check the movie out after reading this disappointing piece (it's currently streaming on Netflix as of this writing). It requires Cohan to do some acting somersaults, though, and she's up for all of it. Actually, she's got me from the start: when she is first introduced to Brahms, her reaction is to laugh. It's such a natural, unforced laugh -- not cruel or mocking, just the response of someone who thinks she's being pranked -- that it's impossible not to empathize with her immediately. She reacts just as we would, allowing us to identify with her early on and then carrying that identification through every remaining beat. When Greta is growing more and more afraid, so, too, would any of us be. When she reaches the point where she accepts Brahms as a living thing she's afraid to piss off, we're right there with her. Everything she does feels natural and honest.