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At The Picture Show
February 2014

Vampire Academy

A star woulda, coulda been born

Zoey Deutch shines in otherwise dreadful 'Vampire Academy'

Vampire Academy
The Weinstein Company
Director: Mark Waters
Screenplay: Daniel Waters, based on the novel by Richelle Mead
Starring: Zoey Deutch, Lucy Fry, Sarah Hyland, Danila Kozlovsky, Dominic Sherwood, Sami Gayle, Claire Foy, Olga Kurylenko and Gabriel Byrne
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 44 minutes
February 7, 2014
(out of four)

It's a shame about Vampire Academy. If it were any good, or if it had any marketing heft behind it, or both, it could have been a real game-changer for its lead actress. Zoey Deutch is not just the highlight of the movie - she's the only thing even worth mentioning, and definitely the only thing you'll remember. This might as well have been a one-woman show.

You simply can't keep your eyes off her. It's not just her borderline-impossible good looks (you can certainly see the resemblance to her mother, Lea Thompson), but an electric force of personality that ignites whenever she's on screen. It's a movie-star quality. She's not a movie star yet - maybe she never will be - but she's got that intangible thing. A few years from now, if she's not playing a slinky femme fatale in a badass neo-noir, someone will have failed badly.

Not to say her performance is without its flaws - it might be a bit too precious, and she probably lays on the attitude a bit too thick at times (if she could settle in at Kristen Bell-in-Veronica Mars levels, that'd be about perfect). But the charisma and screen presence she naturally possesses do not come around all that often, and more than make up for the rough edges. And in this case, it makes a really bad movie significantly more tolerable.

This isn't necessarily a knock on the other actors in the cast. The ones I know (Gabriel Byrne and Olga Kurylenko among them) are fine actors, and the others may well be, too. But by and large, they all seem to be brought down by the D-grade material, accepting the bad dialogue and shoddy craftsmanship for what it is. And then there's Deutch, the overachiever, persistent in the belief that this mess is (or could be) better than it actually is. (In fairness, Sarah Hyland - as the perky, naïve third wheel alongside Deutch and Lucy Fry - injects some energy and vigor into the proceedings as well. But it's too small a part to have the same kind of impact.)

Having never read the source novel (the first of a series of six, apparently), I wonder about the intended balance between Deutch's character, Rose Hathaway, and her best friend Lissa Dragomir (Lucy Fry). In the film, Lissa is the most important figure (her presence as a royal heir drives the entire plot), but the story itself belongs to Rose. Lissa is almost incidental - a plot function rather than a character. Was there a more even split in the novel, or was this always about Rose? I'm curious to know if the filmmakers simply realized they had something special in Deutch and adjusted accordingly.

Whatever the case, the two characters' fates are intertwined throughout Vampire Academy. There are three types of vampires (although the V-word is pretty much taboo) in this particular mythology - Moroi (the most important), the half-human Dhampir (who protect the Moroi) and the Strigoi (the evil, red-eyed kind who hunt the others). Lissa is a Moroi, and Rose is on tap to be her Dhampir guardian - and should make an especially good one, given that she and Lissa share a powerful psychic bond.

But the two are still in high school, and Rose still has a lot of training to do before she can take on that responsibility - training that comes courtesy of the strongest guardian of them all, Dimitri Belikov (Danila Kozlovsky). There's an obvious attraction between Rose and Dimitri (natch), but it's complicated by both ethical conflicts (teacher/student) and age-related ones (she's around 18, he's several years older - it should be noted, the actor, Kozlovsky, is 28, but could pass for 42; I honestly have no idea how old Dimitri is supposed to be). Meanwhile, Lissa is navigating some emotional pitfalls of her own - namely a rivalry with the venomous Mia (Sami Gayle, who will probably stake a claim to all roles that would have gone to Mena Suvari 15 years ago), and a flirtation with the school's bad boy, Christian, who's dark and brooding and carries the shame of his parents' conversion to Strigoi years earlier.

The modus operandi for providing information about the various vampire sects and the film's intersecting plotlines is constant narration and a barrage of expository dialogue (in this regard it rivals even the absurdly exposition-happy I, Frankenstein). And director Mark Waters' idea of a visual aide is - I kid you not - to print words on the screen whenever they are described in voiceover. When Rose explains to us who the Strigoi are, the word floats onto the screen: STRIGOI.

Thanks for the spelling lesson, Mark.

On that note, though: One of the main selling points for this movie version was, presumably, the pairing of Waters and his brother Daniel, who penned the adaptation. The two are collectively responsible for two of the most popular and respected female-driven high-school satires of their respective eras - Daniel wrote 1988's Heathers and Mark directed the Tina Fey-scripted Mean Girls.

But this movie lacks the same satirical edge - or any kind of edge, for that matter. There's plenty of sarcasm and playfulness - most of which falls flat - but the Waters brothers find very little in this world to comment on or explore.

Worse yet, the whole of Vampire Academy strikes a conspicuously misguided tone. For a film ostensibly about outsiders, it seems to be trying way too hard to be the cool kid in class. This is something we've seen again and again in recent years - movies that can't or won't embrace the inherent dorkiness of their subcultures. In this case, most of our heroes - clad in the kind of sexy leather outfits that only the coolest people can pull off - are trendy and clever and attractive and hip (if you'll pardon the antiquated phrasing). You never get the sense that they have any, y'know, real problems; if they were out in the real world, they'd be the first ones let into the nightclub. They'd be socialites - not outsiders. Maybe teen angst is played-out, but the least Vampire Academy could do is make it feel like these characters are up against something beyond the obligatory Insidious Plot. You can find those anywhere.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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