'The New Mutants' Review: A Middling Movie That Works Best With Lowered Expectations

(Note: This critic is working outside the United States and was able to see this movie in an environment that’s safer than a typical American theater. Considering the way the U.S. has handled the coronavirus pandemic and the dangers it still presents, /Film cannot endorse Americans returning to movie theaters at this time.)

It may be impossible to ever fully extricate the metatextual machinations surrounding Josh Boone’s film The New Mutants from the movie itself. Shot in New England back in 2017, the film’s gestation was prolonged when its studio, 20th Century Fox, was purchased by Disney. The complicated connection between the previous Fox X-Men series and how this could potentially fit in Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe is ripe for another article, but suffice it to say this film’s new studio wasn’t in a huge rush to wrap up the old stuff before moving onto the new. With its release date delayed until the spring of 2020, it looked like a fine time to bid goodbye to the old way of doing mutant tales – only to have a global pandemic push the release back even further.

So, we’re left with this strange film, an event movie that’s being quietly released in various markets where screenings can take place under socially distanced circumstances, making the whole thing feel a bit surreal, spooky, and medicalized. Fitting, then, that this Breakfast Club meets Girl, Interrupted genre piece works far better as a plucky film with significantly lowered expectations rather than some bombastic blockbuster that an onslaught of marketing may have set it up to be.

The film begins abruptly with Daniele (Blu Hunt) being awakened by her father (Adam Beach) from a dream. Fire and rampage is all around her, and as she’s led to the hollow of a tree to find shelter, her Native American community is destroyed. She soon wakes up chained to a bed in a hospital, met by a lab-coat wearing Cecilia (Alice Braga), who soon lets young Daniele know she’s there to try and control her latent powers that haven’t fully emerged yet. They join a circle of fellow individuals that all have seen their own abilities spring up from acts of violence or tragedy. There’s Rahne Sinclair (Maisie Williams), a Scot with a strong spiritual sense whose faith has been shattered by those she trusted. There’s Sam (Charlie Heaton), whose pain and anxiety resulted in acts that haunt him. There’s the acerbic bully Illyana (Anya Taylor-Joy), a true mean girl whose own abusive background has made her bitter and brittle. Then there’s Roberto (Henry Zaga), a douchebro exuding confidence who has harmed all that have come close enough to see the real person behind the façade.

The storyline plays with interesting facets of dealing with emerging powers, using the notion of adolescence as the grandest metaphor for changes that one cannot control and behaviours that one can’t always explain. While nowhere near as fantastic as a movie like Ginger Snaps, which tackles similar themes, there’s nonetheless a real attempt to bring a sense of reality and sensitivity to issues like abuse, mental health, self-doubt, and other challenges that many encounter in their teen years. These trappings aren’t simply there to add spice, but seem well integrated into the narrative’s core.

At the same time, there are still plenty of horror film tropes to make this feel (in a good way) like a throwback drive-in scare fest, except with plenty more CGI. The scares are more textural than truly creepy, and they’re certainly overshadowed by what’s primarily a character piece, with each person’s fears and anxieties literally manifesting as part of the storyline. 

The film draws superficially on Danielle’s indigenous roots, yet while the likes of Illyana makes light of the power of these stories, there’s still enough here that feels legitimate in informing the character rather than being purely for exoticism. The characters begin very much in the mode of their stereotypical selves, but the film becomes more interesting (and successful) when these elements are deconstructed, resulting in a collaboration that feels earned even if entirely expected.

Similarly, the romantic connection between Rhane and Danielle, no doubt a significant moment in a mainstream Disney release, is remarkable for how entirely unremarkable it is treated. Their affect seems both appropriately tentative and genuinely honest, and while it would be easy to dismiss this connection as somehow being exploitative or meant to be incorporated for cynical reasons, it feels absolutely in keeping with the film’s spirit. In each other’s arms, we see these two damaged individuals finding the affection each deserves, and in a film mostly concentrating on blowing stuff up and giving us dashes of magical mutants powers, it’s nice to see some humanity on display.

Despite all of the efforts to bring The New Mutants to the big screen, it’s not a film that demands to be experienced on the larger canvas of a cinema. Maybe it’s the music by Mark Snow (most famous for his X-Files work), or the cast members that we’ve seen numerous times on the small screen in shows like Game of Thrones and Stranger Things, but there’s a sense that The New Mutants would work as top-notch television rather than a middling movie. Divorced from box-office expectations and worries about its inevitably limited theatrical run, the film’s scope isn’t overwhelmed, resulting in an entertaining if slight teen action/horror/drama that oftentimes works quite well. 

There will be an audience for The New Mutants, and in time it may even achieve a kind of cult status, with people seeing themselves in these troubled characters as they come to terms with their own challenges. For now, we get a film that is perfectly fine in being perfectly fine. In a world where normal seems very abnormal indeed, to experience something middling feels surprisingly refreshing, and while its road to the screen has been fraught, the end result is a decent, entertaining film that is worth seeking out when time and circumstances allow.

/Film Rating: 6.5 out of 10

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