Posted on 10/31/12 09:31 PM
Let's See Them Try Getting Christianity This Wrong
I love this movie, but it bothers me a whole lot. I mean, there's the whole "Manon" thing, which is just silly. In a more obscure problem, while the girls are shown walking onto the beach carrying animals corresponding to the elements they fit best (except there are two things for Air), when they actually go to call the corners, only one of them is at the corner of the animal she was holding. (Two, if you assume that for some reason the bird was supposed to be a mouse or something.) The snake, which is Fire, is first held by the obvious choice, but it is then passed on to the least-Fire one of the four. Also, these girls are supposed to have read a lot about Paganism (Wicca is a single branch, kind of like how not all Christians are Methodists) and yet it takes the woman who owns the shop where they shoplift their supplies to tell them about the Rule of Three. And, of course, they go to a Catholic school in LA with no Hispanic kids.
Sarah Bailey (Robin Tunney) is a troubled girl. Her mother (Janet Eilber) died when Sarah was born. Sarah is recovering from a recent suicide attempt. When she starts at her new school, she first falls for Chris Hooker (Skeet Ulrich). When he spreads lies about her because she doesn't sleep with him, she ends up hanging out with the outcasts. There's Scary Nosering Girl (Fairuza Balk), Nancy Downs. Nancy is Fire, impetuous and consuming. There's shy and scarred Bonnie (Neve Campbell) and Token Black Girl Rochelle (Rachel True). The three tell Sarah of their worship of an entity called Manon. Working together, the four of them gain power. Bonnie loses her scars and gains self-confidence. Rochelle gets vengeance against the racist Laura Lizzie (Christine Taylor). Sarah makes Chris fall in love with her, only to discover why you shouldn't do that. Nancy, to the surprise of essentially no one, goes to a dark place.
The thing about a modern religion--and don't let anyone convince you Paganism isn't a modern religion--is that it's hard to be mad when people get things wrong, because the traditions aren't really set. Bonnie and Rochelle insist that they should have four to call the corners (essentially praying), but there are traditions where you have three--a Maiden, a Mother, and an Other One--traditions where you have two--priest and priestess--traditions where you have six. In fact, the various takes on Paganism are the only religion I know of where there's a term where for someone with no group at all--solitary practitioner. Nancy is actually right in that they don't need a fourth. On the other hand, "Manon" was invented for the movie. There's a deleted scene wherein Sarah invokes a goddess, which is fairly common. Still, despite the fact that Fairuza Balk was apparently already Pagan, there's a lot in here that no Pagan I've ever known actually believes. Even the teenagers rebelling against Christian parents.
In part, that's because this movie is an admitted allegory for female sexuality. The girls are discovering a power within themselves that they did not have before. (The earlier drafts made clear that it was only Sarah who had the power, and the others were only able to do things because of her.) While most Pagans will tell you that you should never, ever do a directed love spell--it's okay to invite love into your life but not to try to force a specific person to love you--it's also not surprising that the teenage girl Robin Tunney (twenty-three at the time) was playing would think to do it, especially given how little she knew about the tenets of the faith. Sarah wants to be loved. Bonnie wants to be beautiful. Rochelle wants to be popular. Nancy basically wants to be a different person. It's also not surprising to me that Rochelle, victim of racism, herself makes a throwaway racist comment at one point. These girls are not the queens of introspection, because teenage girls seldom are.
I was surprised today by how good certain aspects of the movie actually are. For one thing, Neve Campbell's scar makeup is fairly impressive. I still own the soundtrack, and not just because I've owned it since 1996 and haven't bothered getting rid of it. There are also scenes where the filming itself is quite good, where more care was shown to the cinematography than there is any reason to expect. Yeah, okay, there are plot holes. (How is Nancy's family paying her tuition? Did $175,000 really go that far in LA in the mid-'90s? How is Rochelle the only black girl in the school? Are there any Catholics there? Does Sarah really know Chris well enough to react to things the way she does?) Yes, it's depressing that this is the most sympathetic and accurate portrayal of Paganism I think I've ever seen in the mass media. However, as a metaphor for female sexuality and teenage isolation, it's pretty good. Even if, as the stars point out, their skirts get shorter as their powers get stronger.