The Changeover

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday February 22, 2019

'The Changeover'
'The Changeover'  

New Zealand teenager Laura Chant (Erana James) has a special ability to feel lurking danger. She felt it "in her bones" before the earthquake that ravaged Christchurch hit; she feels it again now, and by paying attention to various clues (like a vision in the bathroom mirror of herself screaming out) she deduces that the target this time is her little brother, Jacko (Benji Purchase).

All this is interesting stuff, and makes for family drama when her mother Kate (Melanie Lynskey) simply writes off her concerns as manifestations of the same kind off mental disturbance that led Laura's father to kill himself. But what really tips the film's hand that Laura is something special is when, eyeing an older man with a creepy fascination for Jacko — a British fellow named Carmody Braque (Timothy Spall) — she announces, "You look different. Younger." Well spotted; he looked the same to me, but to someone of Laura's discernment who knows what might jump out?

Braque himself appreciates her talents; after all, he sometimes goes by the alias David Younger, and that's no accident. Braque, like Laura, is in possession of special gifts... including, as it happens, possessing others and sucking their life energy. Jacko is a tasty tidbit to this monster, but Laura also appeals to his hunger.

What's a teen to do when the adults in her life are too clueless, or too feeble, to defend her family properly? The answer posited here is, go full-on CW with atmospheric music (a little pop, a little electronica), a hot new crush in the form of new boy at school (and handily magical new ally) Sorenson (Nicholas Galitzine), and an epic struggle in which virtuous youths will surely crush predatory elders. All it takes, Laura learns, is an inherently risky rite of passage in which a "sensitive" like her can transmute herself into a full-fledged witch.

Based on the novel by Margaret Mary, "The Changeover" explores the usual coming of age topics from a vantage of enchantments. Not the fairy tale sort; more the Follow the Moon to the Benign Coven of Witches kind. The coven consists of Sorenson's extended family, including his mother Miryam (Lucy Lawless), but even here the kids turn out to be on their own. Braque, we learn, is an especially nasty sort of evil spirit, and the older folk are powerless before his malice. What hope is there when even Xena the Warrior Princess is left impotent?

This being an ably assembled example of its genre, Laura herself is the one and only force that can possibly prevail. Agents of possession, cower before her coming into her own self-possession!

The film has the virtue of Spall's virtuoso performance — as baddies go, his Braque is cut from classical cloth, just gentle and urbane enough to be really brutal when he wants. Directors Miranda Harcourt and Stuart McKenzie, working from McKenzie's screenplay, charge the film with plenty of tension, or at least oddness; black cats and butterflies enter the picture at unexpected moments, as guides or lures or prettily done special effects that underscore romantic interludes.

But the sparkle is brief and the story shallow. There's no getting around the film's paperback origins. This is the sort of movie that usually goes in too deep for broad gestures; the filmmakers seek to give this film a little more credibility by clamping down on that urge. The eyes of various characters glow with supernal light at key moments, but just for a split second; episodes of magical conjuring turn out to be exhausting; a trip to the spirit realm turns out to feature a high-concept condominium. Christchurch itself serves as a sobering backdrop to all this supernatural fussing, its half-destroyed infrastructure illustrating both the fractured family Laura comes from and the crumbling certainties of her receding childhood. Growing up is a complicated business, and if you have significant inner resources of a mystical bent, so much the better — but you have to learn to master those abilities and not let them run you off the rails.

That's all well and good, but you still get the feeling this is a horror story founded not on New Zealand's unsteady bedrock so much as on teen hormones.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.