Chynna is traveling to the isolated West Texas desert, where her terminally ill mother has been staying at a health retreat. She is taking time away from her nursing studies and is intent on convincing her mom Debbie to leave and seek medical treatment for her cancer.
When she arrives, Chynna is taken aback by the retreat itself, which has a New Age emphasis on strict eating practices. But what's more unnerving is the almost cult-like commitment to a kind of faith healing -- one that eschews the conventional medical interventions that Chynna wants her mother to undertake. The tension erupts into a conflict that will transform the relationship between Chynna and her mother, and perhaps even change Chynna herself.
Directed by Nickolas Grisham and Morgan Bond from a script written by Grisham and Curtis McOsker, this short drama compels for its painstaking build-up of character and setting, a creative high-wire act in the writing, performances and directing that culminates into an earth-shaking climax. But its narrative also captures the often conflicting cross-currents that undergird our contemporary ideas of health, well-being and what it means to be whole and healthy with an unusual intellectual and emotional complexity -- one that will provoke thought and discussion.
In many ways, the film is a thoughtful, sensitive family drama, where its members conflict over what course of action to take. Here, a daughter is on a quest to change her mother's decision to approach her terminal illness differently, and the storytelling is attentive to the push and pull of her emotions. Actor Karie Ann Randol deftly portrays Chynna's many layers when it comes to her mother, who is played with equal commitment by actor Peggy Schott. Between two, there's deep love as well as frustration, complicated by Chynna's anxiety at losing her mother.
As viewers, we are also yoked into Chynna's perspective, seeing and experiencing the new environment of the health retreat through her eyes. The cinematography captures the raw beauty of the striking, desolate West Texas landscape, but it also carves out a sense that Chynna is leaving her normal world and entering an isolated bastion. As Chynna immerses herself in her mother's new milieu, some of her interactions have wry humor in their earnestness. But there's a growing sense of unease, built up first through small, seemingly off-hand observations and details like the gleam of fanaticism in a retreat member's conversation or the glimpse of an extreme emotional ritual through a window.
These all culminate in Deb's birthday dinner, in which this mix of narrative elements, hints and tensions explode into a powerful confrontation, not just between Chynna and her mother, but between Chynna and her inner fears and grief. There's also a key interaction between Chynna and the retreat leader. It spins the emotional journey of "Malignant" into another orbit entirely, one that is provocative and powerful in the questions it raises about often seductive ideas and primal emotions around bodily autonomy, wellness and medicine, as well as the sometimes uncritical adherence of true believers. The story also gets at the despair sometimes underlying rational skepticism, which makes its ending transfixing and even brilliant. It hints at the comfort of faith, even in the face of facts -- especially when those facts are hardest to face, and cold in their lack of reassurance.