Cracks is the rarest of creatures — the type of film that you watch, and once it’s finished and the credits are rolling, one of the first thoughts to flow through your mind is, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like that.” It’s a wonderful feeling, that you’ve seen something that’s as interesting and stirring as Cracks. That isn’t to say that it’s wholly unique, but instead it combines a complex and difficult set of circumstances and creates something wondrous and thought-provoking.
Cracks, based on the 2000 novel by Sheila Kohler and directed by first time director Jordan Scott (who is the daughter of Ridley Scott who, along with brother Tony, served as producers), takes place in 1934 in a bucolic English boarding school for girls. It’s actually part orphanage and part boarding school, filled with girls whose parents take them there and yet, they never seem to pick them up. This collection of lost girls are fascinated by one of their teachers who they affectionately call Miss G (Eva Green), a worldly and sophisticated free spirit who encourages the girls to free themselves from the shackles of their stolid learnings, to fill themselves with desire and passion. Miss G fuels their passions by playing them off of one another, choosing favorites — notably the haughty and domineering Di (Juno Temple) — and creating rifts between them, then gathering them together again. In turn the girls worship Ms. G as she regales them with tales of her cosmopolitanism and her exotic adventures.
However, this little collective is disrupted with the arrival of new student Fiamma (María Valverde), a quiet sophisticate in her own right, rumored to be of Spanish nobility. Fiamma wants nothing more than to left alone until her father comes to rescue her, but Miss G, enamored of her alleged noblesse and cultured urbanity, takes an immediate shine to her. Miss G sees her as a kindred spirit, a younger, fresher version of herself, and this false bond immediately creates a schism between Fiamma and the other girls. Di seethes with jealousy as her most-favored status is threatened, simultaneously coveting the traits that Fiamma possesses. Fiamma, meanwhile, is almost an innocent bystander — she simply wants peace, but those around her force her into their game of favorites and petty rivalries, which eventually turn to darker pursuits. Making the dense girlpolitik at play even more complex is that Fiamma isn’t buying what Miss G is selling, seeing through her illusion of grace and worldliness, which simply creates further chaos.
It’s a difficult film to describe, but it’s an utterly fascinating one. The top-billed actress is Green, who alternates between diva-like swan and neurotic manipulator. She carelessly toys with the emotions of her girls, all essentially because she has become so dependent on their admiration. However, the real standout stars are Temple and Valverde, two youthful actors who give bracing, emotional performances. Each starts out with particular roles to play within the hierarchy of the group, but they evolve with a taut intricacy that is absolutely remarkable. Whereas Green is occasionally overwrought and over the top (more so than the role calls for at times), the two of them perfectly capture the essence of their characters. Temple has the tougher job, taking the somewhat unlikable ringleader and making her a sympathetic, lonely pawn whose actions in an effort to gain recognition and love spiral out of control.
It’s accented by gorgeous cinematography and perfect-to-the-stitching costume design, capturing a beautiful moment in time and place. The pace is slow, but never plodding, and the tone of the film is a combination of lush and sensual, while also being tense and rather haunting. It’s accompanied by a lovely score by Javier Navarrete.
The themes of Cracks — of the toxicity of relationships among teenage girls, of confusion and lust and repression, of the dangers of toying with the emotional and sexual development of youth — make it a complicated, mesmerizing affair. At times, it felt like a female version of Dead Poets Society meets Lord of the Flies, but it doesn’t succumb to such a conventional comparison. It’s a thorough exploration of the lives of young girls and how they are manipulated, of sexual fears and the predatory nature of some adults. The film oozes sexuality, but without being exploitative. A scene of skinny-dipping will guarantee it an R-rating and a hard time getting wide release in the US, as does a particularly uncomfortable scene of unwilling seduction. Yet it doesn’t come off as prurient or scandalous, but instead goes naturally with the flow of the film.
Cracks surprised me. It was a last second decision to see it at the festival, and one I don’t regret in the least. It’s a gorgeous film on its surface, but a deeper exploration reveals a deeply intelligent film, full of rich symbolism and a breathtaking look at both the beauty and ugliness of the human condition. It’s a movie about young people that honestly exposes their fears and emotionalism, and shows the consequences of exploiting those fragile psyches. It’s that very honesty and raw exposure that will likely doom it to limited release, but that also shows that director Jordan Scott and her cast of remarkable young women have great potential.
This review, originally posted during the 2010 Boston Independent Film Festival, is being republished because the movie is opening in limited release today.