It’s taken a while for Margaret Mahy’s beloved, award-winning 1984 young-adult novel “The Changeover” to make it to the big screen; but the writer-director team of Miranda Harcourt and Stuart McKenzie have given the book an astute adaptation, balancing magical arcana with everyday adolescent turmoil.
The impressive young actress Erana James plays the teen, Laura Chant, a low-level psychic who spends much of her days anxiously fretting about her rambunctious younger brother Jacko, while their divorced mother (Melanie Lynskey) works long hours at a bookstore. Then an unsettlingly friendly stranger, Carmody Braque (Timothy Spall), casts a spell on the boy, and begins sapping his life force.
To save her brother, Laura gets help from a handsome classmate, Sorensen Carlisle (Nicholas Galitzine), who comes from a long line of witches — including his mother Miryam (Lucy Lawless). The Carlisles inform Laura that to defeat a powerful magician like Carmody, she’ll have to become a witch herself, undergoing a potentially dangerous transformation.
Fans of YA fantasy will have to wait until the last third of “The Changeover” for the magical elements to ramp up. The movie’s first hour is mostly about its unusually sensitive heroine, navigating a world where everything feels like a threat. She’s troubled by anxiety and guilt as much as she is by Carmody.
But that first hour is also the best part of “The Changeover,” with its slice-of-life scenes shot in and around a working-class neighborhood in Christchurch, New Zealand. Thanks to a focus on the setting and emotions of the story, by the time the life-or-death action kicks in, Harcourt and McKenzie have clearly delineated these characters and what they’re facing — bringing Mahy’s words to life.
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Playing: Starts Feb. 22, Galaxy Mission Grove, Riverside; also on VOD