French coming-of-age horror tests the limits of mind and stomach

If “This Is Spinal Tap” taught us that there's a fine line between clever and stupid, there is a similar line in horror between gore and art.

The French import “Raw” falls cleanly on that fine line, with barf-bag-clutching extremes playing against an equally, shockingly smart coming-of-age story. And if you fall in the admittedly narrow overlap of that Venn diagram, it's a must-see, even if some of it is tough to watch.

Justine (Garance Marillier) is a French teenager who has been raised in a strict meatless family. When she's at dinner at a restaurant with her parents and her mashed potatoes unexpectedly are contaminated with flesh, her mother is livid. “It's unacceptable. We're vegetarians,” she says.

Justine's respect for animals has led her to follow in the footsteps of her older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) to an exclusive veterinarian school. Soon thereafter, a hazing ritual for new students forces Justine into breaking her vegetarian vows.

Thus begins an escalating series of events that unlocks something deep in Justine that is heavily carnivorous.

Writer-director Julia Ducournau takes things to places few would dare. She makes her central character a relatable teen going through all the relatable pressures of teen-hood, which makes the places Justine goes all the more unnerving.

These are loose touchstones, so take them with a grain a salt, but the movies this reminded me of are all subversive and great. There are flourishes of “The Tribe” and “Wetlands,” two underseen imports from recent years I'll only recommend to certain audiences. There's some “Trainspotting.” There's some “Let the Right One In.” Some of these references are obscure, but if you're hitting on this, you need to see this movie.

Coming-of-age films are only as great as their leads, and now 19-year-old Marillier is quite great. Her meekness in the early going sets up what's to come perfectly, while still keeping her Justine somehow perversely easy to empathize with. The discomfort that causes the audience is the mark of great horror.

Ducournau favors a slow turning of the screws, which makes some of these turns doubly delicious. There's also a wicked sense of humor running through the whole affair (much to the delight of the Killumbus Horror Society meetup present when I screened).

But there's also artistry here. And the arthouse crowd with open minds and strong stomachs should take note.