Fans of French horror auteur Alexandre Aja (

High Tension


Piranha 3D



) may be surprised by his latest offering.

The 9th Life of Louis Drax

isn't about mutant cannibals, psychotic coeds, or guys with devil horns. The ocean figures large in the film, but there's nary a killer piranha.

An emotional, character-driven melodrama adapted from the novel by British author Liz Jensen, 9th Life explores the remarkably active and creative inner life of Louis Drax (Aiden Longworth), a precocious 8-year-old boy locked in a coma.

Narrated by Louis in a cheeky tone that touches on sardonic, the film opens with the near-fatal accident that lands Louis in the shadow-world of coma patients. It's his birthday, and the boy is having a picnic lunch with his mom and dad - the stunning beauty Natalie (Sarah Gadon) and the intense ex-boxer Peter (Aaron Paul) - atop a gorgeous cliff.

Details are fuzzy - you'll soon learn not to trust the storyteller - but shortly after his parents get into a fight, Louis falls over the edge and hits the water hard, suffering severe injuries.

The bulk of the film switches between Louis' inner voice as he tells the story of his life, and the goings on in the state-of-the-art coma bay where he's treated by the sensitive, soulful Dr. Allan Pascal (Jamie Dornan). So warm and caring is our doctor that he comforts Louis' mom, who appears to be terrified of her husband. Before long, she falls for him.

Or does she? And does she really believe her husband is abusive? Like I said, you shouldn't trust the storyteller. He's a kid, after all.

Aja's film opens with a breezy, playful tone, but the more we learn about Louis' home life, the darker it becomes. Halfway through, we begin questioning everything we believed about this family.

The shift in tone is expertly managed by Aja, who brings it on with such subtlety that we're stunned to realize we've entered a profoundly unsettling mystery that grapples with taboo themes.

With its clever structure and pacing, its range of emotional notes, and its remarkable use of magic realism, The 9th Life of Louis Drax makes for an absorbing and memorable mystery.



The 9th Life of Louis Drax

sss (Out of four stars)

yDirected by Alexandre Aja. With Jamie Dornan, Sarah Gadon, Aaron Paul, Aiden Longworth, Molly Parker. Distributed by Summit Premiere.

yRunning time: 1 hour, 48 mins.

yParent's guide: R (disturbing images and themes, profanity).

yPlaying at: Area theaters.