16-year-old Laura Chant is like a lot of teens. She feels different, like a freak. She feels like the world around her is going to hell. Her mother doesn’t understand and lovingly yet misguidedly tells her she’s overreacting. She craves the power to change her life. But unlike most teens, Laura has a power that can change everything.
Based on the acclaimed 1982 novel by Margeret Mahy, The Changeover offers a fantastical coming-of-age tale of girl turns witch. For as long as Laura (Erana James) can remember, she’s experienced premonitions. One morning, she gets a warning that something bad will befall her little brother Jacko (Benji Purchase). Her widowed mum (Melanie Lynskey) thinks Laura’s being too sensitive; it turns out Laura is a sensitive, which means she has the makings to become a witch. Once her brother is marked by a mysterious and malevolent stranger called Carmody Braque (Timothy Spall), Laura enlists the help of a local coven, which includes a steely Lucy Lawless and the dreamy Nicholas Galitzine, to help her battle for her brother’s life and soul.
Set in an impoverished corner of Christchurch, New Zealand, The Changeover grounds Laura’s story as one of privilege and predators. Laura is the poor daughter of a single mother. When she accuses a dapper white gentleman of preying on her brother, the authorities are more inclined to roll their eyes than step in to save her. And Braque’s depending on that. It’s her word against his, and it seems impossible to believe that such a nice old man could do the things she claims. It’s up to Laura to persevere, build a community that supports her, and to fight back by channeling her own inner strength. It’s an interesting arc, an inspiring message, but—unfortunately—a dull movie.
Despite witches, magic, ghosts, and possession, The Changeover isn’t scary, but deadly stern in its tone. The color palette is a grim blue/grey, the performance style restrained titling into stilted. Directors Miranda Harcourt and Stuart McKenzie reject bringing fun into the fantasy of becoming a witch. It’s not until the very end of the film we witness Laura experience any pleasure or wonder at her newfound power. Mostly, she’s a stoic girl whose mouth my slip into a slight sneer or faint smile. James’ performance is woefully wooden. Her onscreen beau, Galitizine has the flawless dewy skin and striking bone structure of a Twilight star. But as Sorensen Carlisle, he brings as much charisma to their requisite romance as a damp sponge. You’d think talents like Lynskey, Lawless, and Spall might save the day, but while each brings some spark, they are all confined to painfully one-note characters and given too little screen time to do much more than whine, stare, and chew a bit of scenery. The film is solidly on the shoulders of newcomer James, and she’s not up to carrying the weight, nor does the script do her any favors.
The Changeover feels like the adaptation of a book. Which means, you can feel the omissions without having read it. McKenzie’s adapted screenplay is sloppy in its world-building, hastily establishing the existence of witches and—uh—other fantasy creatures. There’s little interest in mythos and only a slapdash attempt at establishing rules or stakes. For instance, when Sorensen manifests a butterfly to impress Laura, this bit of magic takes so much out of him that he’s winded. Yet in the third act, Laura’s been a witch for about 10 minutes and pulls off a spell that we’re given no reason to think she can do, and then given no negative consequences for her doing it. I don’t know if that’s how it happens in the book, and I don’t care. Making a film from a book demands the story be self-sufficient. And this one left me feeling like pages had gone missing.
I gave The Changeover a shot because I was intrigued by the trailer. It seemed like a bit of YA (the teen angst, the romance, the self-discovery!) mixed with fantasy-thriller (Cryptic creeper! Possessed kid! Witches!). But it disappointed on all counts. This teen-driven drama never reaches melodrama or even beyond mundane, so the emotional arc falls frustratingly flat. Without a clear path in her quest, there’s no sense of tension or momentum as Laura lumbers into the climax. And with little sense of the rules of this world, I was more often confused than captivated. Overall, The Changeover is a bland adventure that feels like a missed opportunity.
The Changeover opens February 22.