It’s sharper and more literary than you’d think with flashes of wit and an embrace of the concept’s creepiness. The movie tips its hand with an early shot of a Vonnegut novel in the male lead’s hands. (I’m not saying it’s as good as Vonnegut, just that it’s in the ballpark.) He’s Ethan, a smart high school kid who is mourning the death of his mother. He’s interested in good books – or at least all the ones banned by the moralizing busybodies in this small South Carolina backwoods town. (Nice details of the production design are the empty Amazon envelopes sitting next to the stacks of books in his room.) He’s also interested in getting out of town as soon as he can by applying to any and every college that’s at least 1000 miles away. “Go to hell,” a local goody goody girl snaps at him, meaning every word of it. “I’d like to stop off at New York first,” is his smirking reply. But soon he has reason to stay, at least for a little while, as he tries to get to know Lena Duchannes, a sullen, pretty girl who arrives to live in the town’s biggest, most secretive house with her uncle, the reclusive Macon Ravenwood (Jeremy Irons), a man the town gossips about freely since he’s never around to disprove their conjectures.
The leads here are fun, charismatic, likable young performers. Ehrenreich, so good in Francis Ford Coppola’s Tetro, has a looseness to his affable screen presence here. He’s easy to like and root for. He has a good match in Englert, daughter of the great director Jane Campion. She seems otherworldly; her dark eyes look out of a pale face as if possessed with a secret. That sense of mystery is what leads the boy, and by extension the audience, to want to learn more about her. They haven’t known each other for very long when Lena’s family arrives from out of town, including a sashaying, bewitching Emmy Rossum and a flashily bewigged flibbertigibbet Margo Martindale, ready to perform some of kind of secret ritual. As the full extent of the family’s cursed history and paranormal powers come into play as writer-director Richard LaGravenese’s script (from Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl’s novel) springs mostly satisfying supernatural surprises, the movie becomes pleasantly complicated with stakes that matter.
LaGravenese, whose work on such films as Freedom Writers and P.S., I Love You didn’t prepare me for how good this picture is, finds an appealing genre groove, making the metaphors work for him as he plays out a darkly simmering story of young adult fiction in an uncommonly compelling way. What’s most satisfying is how it starts as the story of a local boy intrigued by an outsider girl that slowly shifts to being her story. It’s a shift in perspective that’s welcome, especially as the movie starts with his narration and, by the end, includes a voice over from her, taking charge and finishing her part of the story herself. Though it’s largely a fun, mildly goofy, effects-embellished, teen-centric, small-town horror fantasy with a sizable dose of low-key romance, it’s also a movie about how society claims and labels certain types of women as good or bad and what it takes for young women to take charge and make their own decisions about who they want to be. That it manages to be all things at once and for the most part get away with it too is something worth noting, even celebrating.