Ethan is a teenage boy who just wants to get out of Gatlin (a small Southern town). His relationship with a pretty, popular girl is going nowhere…and then he meets the mysterious Lena and everything starts to change.
Alden Ehrenreich (Tetro, Twixt)
Alice Englert (In Fear, Ginger & Rosa)
Jeremy Irons (Reversal of Fortune, The French Lieutenant’s Woman)
Viola Davis (The Help, Doubt)
Written by Richard LaGravenese (Water for Elephants, The Bridges of Madison County)
Directed by Richard LaGravenese (PS I Love you, Freedom Writers)
Teen loves teen, teen turns out to have a spooky secret….is any of this sounding familiar? Comparisons with “Twilight” will inevitably be drawn but this isn’t a straight rip-off of the sparkly-vampire franchise. There are subtle differences. For starters, the look of the film is very different – the sun-soaked Deep South is channelling “True Blood” rather than the overcast Washington of “Twilight”. And the overall plot arc is very different – where Edward Cullen is a long-established “good” vampire, Lena’s character is very much undecided and the shadow of the “claiming” hangs over the film. Will she be bad or will she be good?
The answer won’t surprise anyone too much. It’s one of many predictable things about this film. For example, the Civil War backstory is interesting but it was inevitable that the figures in the vision would turn out to be related to our protagonists. And when Ethan is driving down a rainy road at the beginning, it’s obvious that he’s about to drive straight into that spooky girl from school.
So, it’s derivative in parts, predictable in others but it’s a perfectly enjoyable film. The plot is pretty engaging, apart from a very slow middle section, and the actors turn in good performances. Emma Thompson’s American accent is realistic and she relishes her dual-character part while Jeremy Irons is as impressive as ever. The two leads are also believable, if a little old for their parts. Some of the cinematography was great and the music fitting. I enjoyed the use of “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”
There were a lot of different themes running through the film and some were subtler than others. Aside from the whole struggle-between-good-and-evil thing, there was a dead parents theme (everyone’s got one, apparently), a weather theme (Lena at times acts like Storm from “X-Men”) and a dreams theme (nice nod to “Inception” at the start). Some would say that’s one theme too many but they’d be forgetting that other great theme of the film – books.
Books are everywhere in this film. From Ethan’s map of banned books, to his first conversation with Lena to the Casters’ library there are lots and lots of books. I’m not entirely sure why. Maybe because the film was adapted from a book and the filmmakers keep trying to remind us of this? Or that books signify intelligence and they want to prove that this is more than a dumb teen film? For whatever reason, this theme is repeatedly hammered home. In one classroom scene (English Lit, naturally) the teacher is talking about “To Kill a Mockingbird” and mentions the loner Boo Radley. At this point, the viewer is either thinking “Hey, that’s a good parallel with Old Man Ravenwood” or “Didn’t they have a hit with “Wake Up Boo” in 1995 ?”. The point is, the viewer can pretty much draw the parallel themselves. We don’t need a character saying “Hey, that’s just like Old Man Ravenwood”. It makes you feel like someone has used aforementioned book to hit you over the head.
There are a few things about this film that don’t make sense, or get a bit silly. Macon knows that his sister is in town under another guise, but doesn’t think to mention this to anyone? He keeps talking about protecting Lena but his actions only ever seem to put her in more danger. Then there’s Amma. About 75% of the way through the film, Ethan turns to her and says “you know something, don’t you?” Well, yes. She was there when you were having all those conversations about casters and she didn’t raise an eyebrow…did you not think then that she knew something? At times the film also borders on misogynist, with its guff about “Female casters can’t choose, no-one knows why, they just can’t”. Can anyone say “plot device”?
And then there’s the odd comedy touches. It’s mainly a very serious film, but then they’ll chuck in a gag here and there for no apparent reason. In a way, it’s good that it’s not taking itself as seriously as “Twilight” does, but at the same time it makes for a confused film. The most perplexing moment is when Lena’s young cousin turns up and is a dead ringer for Edward Cullen, but shorter. That can’t have been accidental, right? It’s just a bit silly. And the assorted magic folk at the end are also a bit silly. It’s meant to be the emotional climax of the film, but all you can think is “what’s that guy behind Lena wearing?!”. While we’re on the ending, don’t expect a satisfying resolution. The very end was just a bit annoying – I suppose they’re leaving it wide open for a sequel. I won’t say any more, so as not to spoil it but it was just…anticlimactic.
So, I think the best way to describe this film is “confused”. There are some interesting bits, there are some deadly dull bits, there are comedy bits and serious bits and there are 1001 different themes that the director is trying to weave in. For a film that feels so long, it also feels crowded. It’s enjoyable enough but there are too many weaknesses to make it a great film.
Watch if you like a passable gothic romance and aren’t taking it too seriously
Don’t watch you get bored easily – ten minutes of watching a girl sit in a library may finish you off.
Overall Rating – 6/10
Kate Milner – @LondonWAToddler