The fevers of adolescence have fascinated moviemakers since Griffith discovered the Gish sisters, but the results have grown more predictable by the decade. Ruled even more strictly by fad and formula than other commercial genres, most Hollywood teen movies are dominated by raunchy schoolboy humor, sweet nostalgia for the verge of womanhood or chem-lab fantasy. The next time some bright-eyed sixteen-year-old decides to travel through time courtesy of the special-effects department, don't you hope he gets stuck between eras long enough to miss the uplifting finale?
In light of these repetitions, Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures deserves special notice, because it deals inventively with the most disturbing currents of adolescent life. This extraordinary film is based on the so-called Parker-Hulme Affair, a bizarre murder case that shocked the sleepy city of Christchurch, New Zealand, back in 1954. The killers, a pair of teenage girls, were publicly branded as monsters, but the court went easy on them: Best friends Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme served about four years each. Their victim? You'll be interested to learn.
Jackson, best known in America for his cult zombie flick Dead Alive, could have feasted on the old sensations of the case, or he might have done a coy David Lynch number, concealing artsy enigmas within self-conscious mysteries, a la Twin Peaks. Instead, this inquisitive and talented 34-year-old has taken a more rewarding route: After studying the pivotal diaries of Pauline Parker and interviewing the girls' former classmates and teachers, assorted cops, lawyers, psychologists and family friends of the period, he has unearthed an obsessive friendship gone over the edge and a tragedy where we might least expect to find one.
This is 1994, but parents are bound to find this forty-year-old tale of youthful passion, delusion and violence unsettling indeed. Teenagers, one suspects, may find it strangely liberating.
In the stern confines of Christchurch Girls' High School in 1952, new girl Juliet Hulme (Kate Winslet) stands out as one of those free-spirited, highly creative kids who lights up a classroom or brings a backyard party to life. Wealthy, witty and (by her lights) worldly, she swoons over Mario Lanza, conjures up an entire medieval fantasy world called Borovnia and takes bold glee in correcting her dowdy French teacher's use of the subjunctive. A little later, we learn about her tuberculosis and her self-absorbed parents.
Juliet is the whirlwind that sweeps up dour Pauline Parker (Melanie Lynskey), the painfully shy daughter of working-class plodders who operate a boardinghouse. Under Juliet's spell, Pauline bursts into bloom herself, emotionally and creatively, but Pauline's hero worship soon grows into symbiosis. Their society of two--complete with secret language, private symbols and the customary overlay of romantic melancholy--excludes all others and insulates the girls.
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The hormonal storms and nagging identity crises of adolescence are familiar to everyone, of course. So are the ghosts of Leopold and Loeb hanging over the proceedings--self-proclaimed "geniuses" convinced of their superiority as human beings. What is new in Heavenly Creatures is the startling intensity with which Jackson gives voice--and vision--to the shared fantasy life of his young dreamers. When Juliet and Pauline imagine their Borovnia, with its dashing princes and palace intrigues, the kingdom springs to surreal life on the screen, inhabited by life-sized versions of the clay figures the girls have been modeling. Later, Orson Welles spooks the girls when they go to see The Third Man, and he continues to spook them through the evening, popping out from behind trees and bedroom doors.
The special-effects people do a nice job, but this is not mere technical wizardry. Jackson honors the idea that teenage play-acting, as well as adolescent emotion, can be strong enough, real enough, to crowd out reality. This is the kind of thing most movies snicker at or satirize. Here it is the heart of the matter: We are not watching the anatomy of a murder but its genesis. Oliver Stone tried the same thing with the frantic flashbacks of Natural Born Killers, but Jackson is more effective. Juliet and Pauline's magic gardens spring to life, their unicorns gambol in the fields. When a gray-faced psychiatrist batters at Pauline's defenses, she reinvents him as a fool. Everything we see through the girls' eyes is so vivid that we dream along with them; we start to become them.
The two young actresses are perfect. At seventeen, blond and lithe Winslet is already a veteran of the British stage, and the edge of desperation she brings to Juliet's fierce gaiety is just right. Amazingly, Lynskey has never acted before. Discovered in classic fashion on a New Zealand casting search, this clear-eyed, round-faced newcomer has the uncanny ability to make us feel at once sympathetic and uneasy. Behind her stubborn scowl or her stricken grimace, we sense a child in the worst kind of trouble. These are no thirty-year-olds in masquerade: You can almost feel the yearning and delusion and youthful confusion steaming from their skins.
Meanwhile, back in good, gray Christchurch lurk the obligatory parents--catalysts for disaster. The stately Hulmes (Diana Kent and Clive Merrison) are upper-crust types who've casually shunted their sick daughter off into the shadows all her life; Pauline's parents (Sarah Peirse and Simon O'Connor) are merely conventional--well-meaning drudges who fail to see her potential. Each girl is damaged in her own way, as all teenagers are. But most teenagers are not lost in Borovnia with no way home, and that makes all the difference. This is an intelligent, frightening film spiked here and there with wit, and in its quiet wake, the traumas of growing up may never look quite the same again.