November 4, 2019
The Changeover (2017)
Grade: 62/100

Director: Miranda Harcourt, Stuart McKenzie
Stars: Melanie Lynskey, Timothy Spall, Nicholas Galitzine

What it's about. A New Zealand production adapted from the acclaimed 1984 young adult novel by Margarey Mahy. Laura (Erana James) is a hottie but humorless brunette teen. She has a beloved brother, Jacko (Benji Purchase), an innocent pre-schooler, and a caring but heavily burdened single mother Kate (Melanie Lynskey). At her high school, Laura is an acquaintance of hunky but distant and mildly eccentric Sorensen (Nicholas Galitzine).

While looking for their lost black cat, Laura and Jacko encounter Braque (Timothy Spall), a seemingly kindly yet sinister senior citizen, who lives alone in a camper full of curious trinkets and antique toys. Soon after, Jacko's health declines, and Laura blames this on Braque.

Laura deems her nice but clueless mother to be useless in saving Jacko. Instead, she turns to Sorensen, who seems attuned to Laura's suffering. It turns out that Sorenson is the only child of Miryam (Lucy Lawless), who lives with her elderly mother Winter (Kate Harcourt). All three are witches, and they recognize Laura as a potential witch.

Sorensen identifies Braque as a supernatural parasite who sucks the life out of unsuspecting victims. One night of training (the changeover) is all it takes for Laura to become a full-fledged witch, just in time to stop Braque and save Jacko, in that order.

The Changeover is the first feature directed by Miranda Harcourt, a veteran acting coach and the daughter of Kate Harcourt, who plays the elder witch.

How others will see it. Despite three well-known actors in significant roles, The Changeover has a piddly 1K user votes at The user ratings are equally unimpressive: 5.3 out of 10. Non-U.S. voters, probably mostly from the U.K. and British Commonwealth countries, grade it yet lower, 5.0 out of 10. It is interesting, though, that older audiences see it less negatively than the younger set. Men over 45 grade it 5.2, while men under 30 grade it 4.7. Older women grade it 5.7, versus 4.9 from women under 30. But these are average-minus grades, regardless of demographic.

User reviews pan the "dull", "lifeless", and "brooding" performances of young leads James and Galitzine. Co-director Stuart McKenzie's script also comes under fire for its "wooden" lines. There are also fans of the book who are disappointed in its adaptation, and fans of Lucy Lawless who are disappointed in her minimal screentime.

But the movie does have its admirers. 42% of the user votes are 7 or higher. Many positive user reviews are admirers of the New Zealand "indie scene" and welcome the new addition.

How I felt about it. The famous faces here are Timothy Spall, Melanie Lynskey, and Lucy Lawless. The latter was born in New Zealand, and has achieved cult status for her lead role in the campy syndicated television series "Xena: Warrior Princess." Lynskey had a break-out lead role in Heavenly Creatures and a supporting role in the long-running American comedy "Two and a Half Men".

But it is London-born Timothy Spall who has a slew of Best Actor wins and nominations from myriad festivals, including five BAFTA and three British Independent Film nods for eight different movies.

The stars here are the predictably beautiful teenagers, Erena James and Nicholas Galitzine, and they give creditable performances, but Spall has to show the greatest range, from charming and compassionate stranger to creepy soul-snatcher. He pulls this off while rarely betraying anger, certainly the easy way out for a villainous antagonist.

The Changeover has been criticized for its story, which plows the familiar (and commercially proven) field of teen angst and hocus pocus. But the plot is a faithful adaptation of the novel, a winner of the prestigious Carnegie Medal.

The film's indifferent public reception is more likely due to its pokey pace and lack of action. The romance between Laura and Sorensen lacks the punch anticipated by audiences, who typically do not like to be disappointed. But as an atmospheric suspense drama, The Changeover is worth seeing.