What is with New Zealand and great filmmaking? Seriously. It’s a tiny island country near almost nothing, yet one of their main exports seems to be great movies. From small independent flicks like Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive (1992) or Taika Waititi’s What We Do in The Shadows (2015) to huge blockbusters like the Lord of the Rings trilogy, it’s a cinematic goldmine. If you haven’t started down that rabbit hole, may I suggest The Changeover. Believe me when I say that you will not regret seeking out this heartfelt horror flick. It’s full of surprises and will give you all the feels!
It’s understandable that people may not yet be aware of The Changeover, but that’s all part of what makes it a great discovery. For starters, it’s adapted from Margeret Mah’s debut, and Carnegie Medal winning novel. Likewise, this is the directorial debut of director Miranda Harcourt and only the second film for co-director and screenwriter Stuart McKenzie. The film received a limited release in New Zealand and Australia a few months ago and is now getting an even more limited release in the US.
“Magic, Mystery and Horror abound in this great coming-of-age flick.”
Laura, played by Erana James (Sons of Liars), is a teen living with her brother Jacko, played by Benji Purchase in his screen debut, and single mother Kate, played by Melanie Lynesky (Castle Rock). The story picks up as they sort through their life following an earthquake. As their family makes it through this difficult time, Laura begins to learn she has certain powerful abilities. She is so focused on this, that she doesn’t, at first, notice that little Jacko has begun spending an odd amount of time in the trailer down by the train tracks where the odd loner named Carmody (played by the incredible Timothy Spall) lives.
While that circumstance is certainly unsettling, Laura is torn about how to react because Carmody hasn’t actually done anything more than be friendly to Jacko. Still, some dude living by the train tracks who has a little kid friend and a creepy doll collection is, well, something one generally strays away from. Often when we’re faced with situations where we’re concerned something is amiss, we tend to assure ourselves that everything is just fine. Hell, without that instinct, most horror movies would last ten minutes with characters just nope-ing out of every creepy situation. In this case, Laura was onto something and should have acted on it but she doesn’t realize this until it is too late.
It seems she is not the only one with special abilities. Carmody places some kind of mark on Jacko, possessing his soul and body. Now Carmody has full control of the little man through some kind of magical means. Laura figures this out, but the mystery only deepens when Carmody makes it clear he’s been doing this for centuries and no one has ever come close to stopping him. And so the movie changes from a heightened coming-of-age tale into a game of supernatural cat-and-mouse.
To even stand a chance against Carmody, Laura must step back, reassess and work on harnessing her powers. She learns she is not alone when she finds another student at her school with magical abilities. In fact, his whole family does. So, Laura sets out to learn from the boy and his mother (played wonderfully by Lucy Lawless). Despite her age, Laura has to grow up fast if she’s to embrace her otherworldly powers. She has to come to terms with a good deal in a very short amount of time and on top of all that, face-off against the ageless, magical weirdo that possesses her brother. No big deal, right?
“The hero of this story is a woman who isn’t some cowering victim. Laura is someone who uses her strength and smarts to face evil head-on”
I love that yet again we see horror doing female roles proper justice. I absolutely love this story and how they tell it. The hero of this story is a woman who isn’t some cowering victim. Laura is someone who uses her strength and smarts to face evil head-on. The style, the approach and the structuring of this movie are all just so effective and superb. The performances too, on all fronts, are so grounded that they add a weight to the film that is just wonderful. This is the feature debut for cinematographer Andrew Stroud and, sheesh, does he knock it out of the park. The reliance on wide shots and steady cam work give it a stylish and perfectly appropriate feel for the story.
That style and feel is a big part of what makes this movie memorable. That’s achieved through the great direction, editing, acting and cinematography, but production designer Ian Aitken, who is mainly known as the production designer for the show Spartacus, plays a big part why the look and feel works so well. Magic, mystery and horror abound in this great coming-of-age flick. You may have to search hard to find the film, but I highly recommend you do so.