February 24, 2013

Heavenly Creatures (1994)
Grade: 82/100

Director: Peter Jackson
Stars: Melanie Lynskey, Kate Winslet, Clive Merrison

What it's about. Based on a notorious 1954 murder in New Zealand. In the opening scene, our teen culprits, stained with blood, breathlessly exclaim that there has been a "terrible accident." The rest of the film depicts the events that led to the grisly crime.

Pauline (Melanie Lynskey) is a sullen and friendless girl who chafes within the structure of a strict junior high school. She has working class parents, Honora (Sarah Peirse) and Herbert (Simon O'Connor), who have taken in several young adult males as boarders. She has a brief, illegal, and scandalous relationship with one of them (Jed Brophy).

One day at school, Juliet (Kate Winslet) appears. Her English parents are upper class. Hilda is a marriage counselor, and Henry is a college professor. Juliet is bright but arrogant. She forms an intense friendship with Pauline with fantasy, literary, and lesbian aspects. Their parents become distraught over their daughters' behavior, and after the marriage of Hilda and Henry fails, they decide to separate Juliet and Pauline. The girls, though, form plans of their own.

How others will see it. Heavenly Creatures was not a box office smash, but became a commercial success in its video release. It was a hit on the Awards circuit, especially at the New Zealand Film Awards, where it nearly swept in all nominated categories. It also snagged a Best Screenplay nod at the Oscars.

Director Peter Jackson has since become world-famous for his blockbuster adapatations of J.R.R. Tolkien's popular fantasy novels. Heavenly Creatures, though, was a fairly early effort, and out of place in terms of genre within that period for him, which chiefly consisted of horror films.

The Hobbit/Rings movies have little in common with Heavenly Creatures, but they ensure continued interest in the latter film. Kate Winslet soon afterward became an A-list moviestar thanks to Titanic, and Melanie Lynskey has also had further career success, particularly on the sitcom "Two and a Half Men."

Today at imdb.com, Heavenly Creatures has a respectable 36K user votes, and the user ratings are high with the exception of females under 18, who presumably object to the depiction of their demographic as bratty and borderline insane mother murderers.

In other age groups, women actually like the film slightly more than do men. Men typically give it a 7.4 out of 10, three-tenths below votes from women.

This doesn't mean the movie is for everyone. The murder scene is more disturbing than the typical film death, partly due to its premeditated violence and true crime source, but also because we have two underage girls killing one of their mothers. The intensity of the film may be too much for some viewers, even those jaded by television crime dramas.

How I felt about it. Juliet and Pauline bring out the worst in each other. Pauline validates Juliet's obsession with fantasy, while Juliet enables Pauline's animosity for her mother and school. Both are such selfish brats that our sympathy is limited to their overwhelmed parents, especially the victim, Honora, and the hapless Dr. Hulme.

Jackson's comfort with the horror genre made him an ideal choice as director. This is especially the case with the creepy gray clay fantasy figures that murder folks that intefere with our troubled teen leads. Jackson knows better than to make the villains of the film, the two children, deserving of any sympathy. The director also has a sense of humor, having Pauline's bemused father lip-synch to a fish the overwrought and phony romantic vocals of operatic tenor Mario Lanza.

Most of the actors were obscure and chosen primarily for how well their looks suited their characters. For example, Jed Brophy is ideal for his gangly, feckless, and scheming character. The naturalistic yet convincing performances must then be attributed to director Jackson's skill at coaching them.