The year is not even two weeks old but it already has one electrifyingly brilliant film to its credit.
It’s not all that uncommon for young lovers to feel as if they’ve known each other before. The hormonal euphoria overtaking their bodies may be new to them, but it’s also as old as the species itself. No wonder why a first kiss can suddenly feel so natural. The body knows what to do even as the mind reels. Scott Hicks’ “Fallen” begins with this germ of truth, as it regards two smitten teenagers who feel inexplicably drawn to one another. Yet like many would-be YA franchises, “Fallen” fuses its one good idea with countless bad ones generated not from life experience but from recycled formulas. Based on the book by Lauren Kate, this picture aspires to be the “Divergent” to “Twilight”’s “Hunger Games,” borrowing practically all of its archetypal characters from Stephenie Meyer's hit series while placing them in a reform school that might as well be named Hogwarts Asylum of Mist and Misery.
After enticing the audience with an exquisitely animated prologue detailing the plight of fallen angels shunned for choosing love over duty, the film becomes laughable as soon as it cuts to live action. Arriving at the aforementioned school is Bella—er, Lucinda (Addison Timlin), a troubled teen fresh out of therapy after supposedly killing one of her male peers. She has no memory of what happened, aside from the events that frequently materialize in rapid bursts of flashbacks. Clearly some sinister force is responsible for the murder, and even viewers entirely unfamiliar with this genre will be able to guess where that force emanates from long before it’s revealed.
Rather than accompany Lucinda as she gets acquainted with her new home, her parents simply drop her off, leaving the girl to enter the spooky old building by herself. She’s soon greeted by stern disciplinarian Randy (David Schaal), who recites various rules and regulations with all the owl-eyed awkwardness of a Rainn Wilson android. Then a moody guy in handcuffs, Cam (Harrison Gilbertson), sticks a sucker in his mouth and struts past Lucinda, instantly causing her to audibly quiver. Is this her future emo dreamboat patterned after a certain Pattinson? Nope, turns out the author has opted for the more Lautner-like corner of the Meyer-esque love triangle, complete with the sculpted abs—in this case, Daniel (Jeremy Irvine). But whereas Cam’s openly compassionate personality is more akin to that of Taylor Lautner’s Jacob, Daniel is as unfriendly and evasive as Robert Pattinson’s Edward.
Naturally, Lucinda chooses Daniel because, alas, she channels all the familiar traits of Meyer's horrendous heroine, Bella Swan. She has no personal goals or aspirations to speak of, since her future is defined entirely by the centuries-old man in her life blessed with ageless youth. The main difference is that Daniel is not a vampire, but a—you guessed it—fallen angel. In fact, the school’s entire group of oddball outcasts is comprised of them, including the exceedingly unpleasant Molly (Sianoa Smith-McPhee, sister of Kodi). Working in the same unimaginative vein he did while helming 2012’s “The Lucky One,” Hicks doesn’t even bother to build any semblance of suspense around the notion that all these celestial visions might be spawned from Lucinda’s damaged psyche. When Molly travels great distances in record time while bullying Lucinda in a hallway, there’s no doubt that the winged vixen is flapping in our heroine’s direction.
Since wings may be deemed less cool than fangs among the target demographic, the filmmakers decide to visualize the feathered appendages as CGI outlines that crackle like discount lightsabers. Regardless of how cheap the wings look, the flying sequences are so poorly executed that we never for a moment believe that anyone is lifting off the ground. We also don’t buy the alleged spark between Lucinda and Daniel, who avoids her like the plague until she’s nearly crushed by a statue. Then he swoops to the rescue just like Edward did to prevent Bella from getting crushed by a car. Only this time, he lands on top of her, and does so again after an emotionally charged bout of fencing. Memo to the school: fencing may not be the best activity for potentially homicidal teenagers.
A strain of religious extremism championed by Professor Sophia (Joely Richardson) is blamed for forcing Daniel to deny his true feelings, though just as the “Twilight” saga was essentially a metaphor for abstinence, “Fallen” shies away from any overt traces of eroticism. It even lacks the trashy fun of the “Twilight” pictures, which knew that its audience was primarily interested in ogling the half-naked male bodies onscreen. Here, Lucinda is less interested in Daniel’s chiseled pecs than in whatever generic clue happens to be dangling between them. Timlin’s performance isn’t bad, per se, but it sure made me yearn for Kristen Stewart’s unfairly mocked portrayal of Bella, which captured her character’s infuriating neediness with a textured authenticity. At first, Timlin’s understated line delivery seems almost refreshing, until you realize that every single one of her lines will be delivered in the same lilting, dreamlike tone. It’s not long before the performance verges into monotony and then self-parody, as if Timlin were satirizing Rooney Mara on an “SNL” sketch.
The only person who appears to be having any fun here at all is Lola Kirke, an actress who is quickly gaining a reputation as the Lili Taylor of her generation. Stuck with the thankless task of portraying Penn, Lucinda’s nerdy sidekick, Kirke easily walks away with the picture. The fact that she can rattle off her clunky dialogue with such ease and even earn a couple giggles in the process is a testament to how fabulous a performer she is. Consider the following cringe-inducing exchange: “Is it wrong that I kind of hate her?” Lucinda asks Penn, while glaring at nearby mean girl. “Why?” Penn asks, “Cause she’s a honey-scented, spray-tanned, bikini-waxed, manicured blonde femmebot who’s always smiling and is at this very moment kissing your crush?” It’s the sort of line no actor should be sentenced with, but Kirke somehow pulls it off. And when her boyfriend bites the dust, her wrenching reaction puts all the half-hearted emoting from her co-stars to shame.
With Kirke poised for stardom, it’s only appropriate that Penn bit the dust too, thus saving her from having to deliver more sitcom quips in future installments. Like the franchises it so dearly hopes to compete with, “Fallen” doesn’t end so much as stop with a thud, assuming that we’ll all be on pins and needles for Part II. Sadly, just as Penn was diagnosed with untreatable TDP—Tragically Disinterested Parents—“Fallen” will undoubtedly succumb to TDA—Tragically Disinterested Audience.
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