Sunday, January 29, 2012

The New Daughter (2009)

After an unpleasant divorce, writer John James (Kevin Costner) moves with his teenage daughter Louisa (Ivana Baquero) and younger son Sam (Gattlin Griffith) to Mercy, South Dakota, or rather, a lonely house in the woods near Mercy, South Dakota.

Not surprisingly, the children aren't exactly happy about the move. Sam's a bit too young to actually understand what's going on, and seems mostly afraid and confused, while Louisa - in the throes of puberty and now half a country away from all her friends - blames herself, her father and her mother in turn.

The family's situation doesn't improve when Louisa discovers the burial mound in the woods behind the house. The male members of the family seem somewhat repelled by the place, but for Louisa, it fastly becomes a retreat from everything that ails her. However, contact with the place begins to change her: she starts sleepwalking, gets a curious rash on her neck and upper back, and all of a sudden acts much rougher than the rather timid girl she was before. She's not just getting more assertive against bullies than is generally considered correct, but also begins to experiment with (slightly) shorter skirts and make-up. And that really is just the beginning.

At first, John thinks Louisa's changed behaviour is another consequence of the divorce and the move, but the longer things go on, and the more like a stranger his daughter becomes, the more his conviction grows that there's some outside force changing Louisa. Being a writer and therefore knowledgeable in the ways of the search engine, he begins to research and stumbles upon the sad story of the former owners of his home that includes a changed teenage girl, a run-away mother and a death. Below that, though, lies something more ancient.

In theory, Luiso Berdejo's (whom you may know as the co-writer of the [Rec] movies) The New Daughter should be a film right up my alley: an Americanization of a short story by John Connolly from the author's excellent collection Nocturnes with clear nods in the direction of Arthur Machen, shot atmospherically and with obvious love for detail, well-acted (even Kevin Costner is perfectly alright when he for once doesn't salute flags or explain the sanctity of baseball or said flags), and all-around solidly made.

Alas, in practice, the film turns out to be rather limp and ineffectual. It is one of those films that clearly prides itself on following modern Hollywood's beloved three act structure as closely as if scriptwriter John Travis had written the handbook on it, leaving us with a film that might as well have ended after thirty minutes, for everything that's going to happen after the set-up is going to happen exactly by the book. It's the sort of film where you can be sure that a gun that was buried early on in the proceedings will be dug out again and used later on, for what is good writing if not following rules Anton Chekhov set up once that never were meant to be strict rules every writer has to follow in the future? As it turns out, slavishly following the rules and regulations of the craft isn't good writing, but riskless writing.

As if that weren't bland enough, the film also spends too much of its running time spelling out its metaphors and themes (adolescent female sexuality is so frightening for dads, don't you know? also, it's icky) so clearly that even the idea of ambiguity or (oh noes!) openness to diverging interpretations of what's going on seems preposterous. The audience, after all, should never have to think for itself. We are dumb and need to be told.

Having said that, I also have to make it clear that The New Daughter isn't a bad movie at all, it's just a movie so aggressively lacking in life and actual imagination that it made me wish for an actual bad movie. Those films do at least know how to surprise.


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