Ever since James Dean yawped "You're tearing me apart!" to his parents in "Rebel Without a Cause," cinema has mined teen-age angst.
A thematic continuum runs from "Rebel Without a Cause" up to writer-director Peter Jackson's recent "Heavenly Creatures," but the differences between the two illuminate how far 1955 is from 1995.
For one thing, James Dean only went so far as to strike his father, while the girls in "Heavenly Creatures" commit matricide. Unlike "Rebel," though, "Heavenly Creatures" is a true story.
Set in New Zealand in the 1950s (a starched-collar environment used effectively by Jackson in his wacky zombie movie "Dead-Alive"), "Heavenly Creatures" is mostly about the intense and "unwholesome" friendship that developed between schoolmates Pauline Parker (Melanie Lynskey) and Juliet Hulme (Kate Winslet).
The bond between Pauline, a frumpy brunette, and Juliet, a vivacious blonde, was by turns warm, giddy and brooding. They reveled in the "frightfully romantic" icons of their day, especially singer Mario Lanza, and used clay to create a medieval village with dashing nobelmen.
"How sad it is that other people cannot appreciate our genius," sighs Juliet.
Their fanciful world is brought vividly to life in the movie's cinematography. The girls find themselves stepping into a literal wonderland, which might include dancing clay figures or eagle-sized butterflies.
At first, it's just a schoolgirl friendship. But as the girls' bond grows in intimacy--emotional and physical--the parents get nervous. A child psychologist is consulted and he pompously assures the parents that a cure for homosexuality will soon be found because "medical science is growing by leaps and bounds."
When her family breaks up in divorce, Juliet must face the prospect of leaving New Zealand and Pauline. An air of grim desperation takes over and Pauline, whose meticulous diary provided most of what we know about this case, begins jotting down plans for murder.
So far, the movie is an artful depiction of the kind of extravagant heartbreak all adolescents wallow in. Anyone can relate to it. Who, indeed, has never indulged--even fleetingly--in a daydream about murdering someone?
But these girls really did murder someone, and that makes all the difference. What made them step off that cliff? What separated Pauline and Juliet from us? What prompted them to commit matricide, the most awful of all crimes?
In the end, "Heavenly Creatures," for all its bravura filmmaking (director Jackson is an artist to watch), cannot really give us answers. Probably, no one can.
(In a sensational footnote to the case, the real Juliet Hulme was discovered last year to be a best-selling mystery novelist writing under the pseudonym Ann Perry.)
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