The blandly titled Innocence is the latest in the relatively small field of horror movies in which the slasher preys on teenage virgins. One reason there are so few of these films (the cleverest of which is Jennifer’s Body) is that teens have an easy remedy for virginity under their control. Unfortunately, despite the deceptive wealth of talent behind the camera, this teen horror flick amply demonstrates why it’s being released in the doldrums of early September. It’s just not very good.
Our heroine is Beckett Warner (Sophie Curtis), a high-schooler who’s traumatized by watching her mother die in a surfing accident. Her famous-novelist dad (Linus Roache), seeking a fresh start, installs her in a new apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and a new school, a ritzy all-girl private institution where the students wear plaid skirts. Soon after she arrives, a bitchy, self-mutilating classmate (Chloe Levine) kills herself by jumping out a window in front of Beckett. Or does she jump? Beckett swears she heard the victim shout “Help me!” before she fell. Soon afterward, not only does the dead girl appear to her but so do other dead girls, ones she doesn’t recognize, putting her onto the trail of evidence.
This movie is based on a jagged, free-associative novel by Jane Mendelsohn, whose main character is angry and mentally unstable and has a talent for conjuring up strange, violent images through her narration. We don’t get any of that girl. The Beckett in this movie is just sort of larval and passive, and we can’t imagine why she would want to get her navel pierced, as she does midway through the film. Apple-cheeked newcomer Curtis does light up convincingly in the romantic scenes with Tobey (Graham Phillips from TV’s The Good Wife), an earnest schoolboy who teaches her how to skateboard, but she isn’t dark or acute enough to be credible as the sort of person who could come to grips with the evil here. Also, she fails to project fear convincingly. You’d think that would be a minimum requirement for the lead actress of a horror movie.
The villain is better cast, but she’s mishandled, too. Kelly Reilly plays Pam, the way-too-warm-and-friendly school nurse who seems to be at the heart of everything bad here. The sexiness and menace Reilly brings are the best things here, as Pam flirts with Beckett almost as hard as she flirts with the teen’s dad, whom she starts dating after an alarmingly short time. Yet she’s undercut because the script doesn’t build Pam up as skillfully as it should. Beckett goes from trusting her to thinking she’s out to kill her in the blink of an eye. Pam and the coterie of glamorous women who run the school are drinking virgin blood so they can keep themselves young and beautiful, yet unlike the book, this humorless movie misses the potential for satire in this setup.
Then again, humor isn’t really what director/co-writer Hilary Brougher is about. She hasn’t been heard from since her 2007 teen-pregnancy murder mystery Stephanie Daley, an uneven but deeply affecting film that got a few things about its subject wrenchingly right. (Unlucky to come out a few months before the sunnier Juno, it deserved more of an audience than it found.) She turns out to be devoid of any sense of timing or suspense and has so little feel for horror that she tries to play one scene for a scare even though we can clearly see that it’s Tobey sneaking up on Beckett instead of somebody dangerous.
The thing is, Mendelsohn’s novel is full of terrifying tableaux that come to Beckett in her dreams, hallucinations, and drug-induced stupors. If Brougher had only filmed those straight, they probably would have been scary. Instead, she and co-writer Tristine Skyler (who wrote the pretty good 1999 indie drama Getting to Know You) write most of those out, and the only remotely disturbing thing they come up with to compensate is a bathroom confrontation between Beckett and Pam that turns unexpectedly violent and sexual. The climactic showdown is botched in all sorts of ways, too. Innocence is a fairly disastrous movie, and it’s sad only if you know just how much talent went into it.
Starring Sophie Curtis and Kelly Reilly. Directed by Hilary Brougher. Written by Hilary Brougher and Tristine Skyler, based on Jane Mendelsohn’s novel. Rated PG-13.