Review: Erana James Leads ‘The Changeover’ with Surprising Authority

One of the reasons Kiwi author Margaret Mahy’s works are so beloved is the believable characters she establishes, with young adults in particular convincingly brought to life on the page. Mahy’s fully formed protagonists frequently grapple with the increased responsibilities of adulthood, and that’s true of this big screen adaptation of her 1984 novel — not that supernatural evil is something teens generally have to deal with. Her source material’s characters provide a solid foundation for uniformly confident performances here that, alongside the film’s directorial decisionmaking, assist in making its very familiar plot elements more watchable than one might expect in a post-Buffy/Twilight landscape.

There’s plenty here that we’ve seen before: a curse; possession; disbelieving adults; acceptance of powers as coming-of-age metaphor; a hunky, wooden, potential love interest. The Changeover is committed to rendering them as believable as possible, though, with top-drawer acting talent deployed – particularly a malevolent Timothy Spall, solo mum Melanie Lynskey, and a performance of surprising authority from lead Erana James. The cast plays things straight, despite the genre elements, aiming for dramatic punch rather than hamming it up and that’s an approach mirrored by the distinctive direction and cinematography.

Unlike other mainstream supernatural efforts one could name from both Aotearoa and further afield, The Changeover doesn’t set out to either replicate the feel of previous box office successes on the cheap or inadvertently slide into kidult TV territory. Instead, it successfully establishes a mood of its own, employing the backdrop of post-earthquake Christchurch to effect without overdoing it, and constantly making interesting visual choices. Don’t get me wrong, this is no art-house flick, instead, it’s a solid film that stands on its own two feet. But, like me, contemporary audiences may find the care and attention from cast and crew are in service of a story too simple to truly wow.

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