'The Changeover': Film Review

Artful teen-witch drama doesn't quite cast its spell.

Timothy Spall plays a warlock tormenting a teenager in Miranda Harcourt and Stuart McKenzie's YA adaptation.

A teenage girl in New Zealand finds her family targeted by witchcraft in Miranda Harcourt and Stuart McKenzie's The Changeover, quickly learning that her best defense is to become a witch herself. Based on a 1984 children's book by the late Kiwi author Margaret Mahy (a winner of the Hans Christian Andersen Medal who also penned a beloved picture-book version of the Seven Chinese Brothers folktale), the film pairs YA tropes with art house atmospherics, not always successfully. Its pedigree and the reps of adult thesps in supporting roles — Timothy Spall, alongside NZ natives Melanie Lynskey and Lucy Lawless — should attract some attention, but it will fare much better on home turf than in the U.S.

Erana James plays Laura Chant, who has always been a little different. "I feel in my bones when something bad is going to happen," she tells us in a voiceover; her bones are about to give her fits. Hanging out one day with her kid brother Jacko (Benji Purchase), she meets an overly friendly man who sells old dolls and tribal artifacts out of a shipping container: Spall's Carmody Braque is unsettling from the start, making stalkerish small talk, but once the character becomes an overt threat, the actor's immense creepiness becomes the pic's biggest selling point.

We learn that Braque is a witch intent on prolonging his life by slowly draining Jacko's. Luckily for Laura, the dreamiest boy at school is from a family of spell-casters: Nicholas Galitzine is so pretty as Sorensen Carlisle that the movie hardly thinks it needs to give him a character. Sorensen (yeah, get a load of these names) begins speaking to Laura telepathically, warning her of danger, but he initially doesn't want her to become a witch herself because of the risks posed by "the changeover."

The film is on reasonably solid genre ground while Laura gets the lay of the land: Braque starts popping up at the family home, creepily asking to be invited inside, while Laura's mother (Lynskey) mistakes her increasingly panicked warnings about him as signs of mental illness. But the deeper the script gets into how its version of witchcraft works, the less convincing it becomes. Uniformly solid performances and artful camera/sound work make the movie hard to dismiss out of hand, but the script doesn't sell its hokum as effectively as more mainstream supernatural soap operas.

As the title suggests, Harcourt and McKenzie spend a big chunk of their time watching Laura traverse a kind of spirit plane where she embraces the power of witchcraft; whispered voices guide her through a dream with life-and-death stakes, but while the action briefly intrigues, there's never any doubt about the outcome. Though its hero tells us more than once that she doesn't believe in fairy tales, the film itself clearly believes in happy endings.

Production companies: Firefly Films, Afterimage
Distributor: Vertical Entertainment
Cast: Erana James, Nicholas Galitzine, Timothy Spall, Melanie Lynskey, Benji Purchase, Lucy Lawless, Kate Harcourt
Directors: Miranda Harcourt, Stuart McKenzie
Screenwriter: Stuart McKenzie
Producer: Emma Slade
Executive producers: Richard Fletcher, Caroline Hutchinson, Angela Littlejohn, John McKenzie
Director of photography: Andrew Stroud
Production designer: Heather Hayward
Costume designer: Kirsty Cameron
Editor: Dan Kircher
Casting directors: Tina Cleary, Vicky Wildman

92 minutes