Miranda Harcourt and Stuart McKenzie’s The Changeover, based on the award-winning 1984 novel of the same name by famed New Zealand children’s author Margaret Mahy, has a bit of a timeless energy to it. Planted firmly in the realm of ancient folklore, the bones of this tale feel as though they’ve been passed down from generation to generation, with each new storyteller funnelling their own experience into the material. Although its narrative minimalism could afford to be expanded upon at times, The Changeover cleverly uses storybook magical realism to breathe much-needed life into the YA subgenre as it looks to the past for inspiration in this melancholy modern-day fairytale.
After the untimely death of her father, sixteen-year-old Laura (Erana James) begins having That’s So Raven-style premonitions that her mother (Melanie Lynskey) takes as the onset of a mental disorder brought on by grief. However, her ties to the supernatural world become increasingly unavoidable when a mysterious and sinister salesman (Timothy Spall) plucks Laura’s little brother, Jacko (Benji Purchase), as his prey. Soon, she must unlock the secrets of her psychic abilities in order to save her family from looming evil.
The Changeover is often light on details, refusing to leave an obvious trail of breadcrumbs to allow the viewer to follow along with its complex mythology. McKenzie’s hyperactive script has a tonal fluidity that will swing between CW-ready teen romance exchanges and flashes of genuinely frightening imagery and back again. As the audience, we aren’t always entirely clear what’s happening, but that’s okay. The intentionally disorienting dreamlike state we find ourselves suspended in keeps certain motivations deliberately vague, providing us with just enough exposition to stay engaged, rather than getting bogged down with the mechanics of this world. It’s a welcome change in an arena that often tends to spoonfeed and overexplain.
In a thinly veiled metaphor for the harsh metamorphosis that is puberty, Laura’s embrace of her innate witchcraft marks her journey into womanhood. She must call upon the expertise of more experienced magic users (including Lucy Lawless and Kate Harcourt) in order to learn how to harness her own abilities. It’s a message The Changeover makes readily available, but never to the point where it beats the audience over the head with it. There’s no winking. There’s no hand-holding. Harcourt and McKenzie simply nudge us to pay attention to Laura’s transformation, and then they take a step back to let us piece together the rest for ourselves. We’re able to watch her tap into her vast powers and become a voice for the voiceless on our own terms.
By its very nature, The Changeover is a hard sell. It’s a strange, slow-paced indie with a modest budget that’s all about supernatural teens, and on paper, that might seem like it has limited itself to a rather niche market. However, at its core, there’s a tale as old as time itself, and, what’s more, one that equates adolescent turbulence to something that can be both deeply unsettling and reassuringly magical. It appears that when it comes to reinvigorating the YA ‘chosen one’ narrative, less is more.