I didn’t know what to expect when I sat down to watch The Changeover. The trailer seems to want to equate it to a sort of New Zealand Twilight, and that thought tickled the person inside me that likes to cringe at supernatural romance. But I couldn’t reconcile this with the fact that it was based on a book by respected children's author Margaret Mahy. As it turns out, I've since discovered that she wrote several fantasy novels, including The Changeover.
The Changeover begins in a place of barely-managed hopelessness. Sixteen-year-old Laura Chant (newcomer Erana James) lives in a broken home in the broken landscape of post-earthquake Christchurch. Laura cares for her four-year-old brother Jacko (Benji Purchase) while her single mother Kate (Melanie Lynskey, I Don’t Feel At Home In The World Anymore) works extra shifts to pay rent on their almost-condemned home. When malignant supernatural force Carmody Braque (Timothy Spall, Harry Potter) attacks Jacko with a life-draining curse, Laura is forced to confront the supernatural within herself and ‘changeover’ into a witch to save her brother. Helping her with this transition is a convenient family of witches including Laura’s romantic interest, good-boy school prefect Sorensen Carlisle (Nicholas Galitzine).
Stuart McKenzie (For Good) adapted the novel for the modern screen and teamed up to co-direct with first-time director Miranda Harcourt to combine the source material into a beautiful-looking film. Muted colors and long shots of gray cast a funereal pall across much of the film. The directors cleverly set the tone by ensuring that nothing is quite comfortable when it comes to placement of the characters on the screen. They’re either too close, too far away, or we don’t see all of them, all adding to the increasing discomfort. On the other hand, we're treated to beautiful color palettes and thoughtful slow-motion sequences. It’s a combination that is true to the creepy original novel and creates a surprisingly frightening effect.
The main story is great. Thrilling, uncomfortable, satisfying. A young woman connecting to the hidden power within herself to save her family from powerful external forces. It’s a familiar tale, and one we can easily ascribe meaning to by making parallels to our own struggles growing up.
The romance subplot is one aspect that could have been weaved into the story better. The chemistry between Laura and Sorensen isn’t exactly fizzing, and their inevitable pairing is hardly subtle. Still, what’s subtle about teenage romance? With Sorensen’s classic good looks, mysterious powers and welcoming family, he’s certainly a drawcard for those after the romance promised by the trailer.
The modern setting allows the movie to pass comment on the state of Christchurch post-earthquake, and by extension, other cities hit by natural disasters (the list of which is growing by the day). Harcourt and McKenzie take us on a contemplative tour of the city. Lingering shots of fenced-off, swampy and barren suburbia, half-demolished buildings in the city center and shipping container pop-up-stores all contribute to the image of a city not quite able to come back from what happened to it. Much like Laura’s family.
It’s the familiar nature of these metaphors used in The Changeover that increased my uncomfortable enjoyment most. Sixteen-year-old Laura becoming a witch (or “woman of the moon” in the novel) is the ‘changeover’ of puberty. The fervor of Braque’s predatory stalking of poor little Jacko is thinly-veiled pedophilia. The mourning, depressed city is the family. The movie doesn’t pretend to be clever about these metaphors. Rather it highlights these parallels, and they serve it all the better to scare us.
The Changeover, like its protagonist, is flawed but beautiful. Self-conscious to the point where it’s unsure of what it wants to be, it still remains a thoughtful, creepy adventure well worth watching. The few unsatisfying blemishes don’t take away from great performances, a visual spectacle, and a viewing experience of genuine thrills and contemplation. As far from Twilight as you can get.