Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in
humility regard others as better than yourselves.
4Let each of you look not to your own interests,
but to the interests of others.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5or rude. It does not insist on its own way 1 Cor. 13:4-5a
I went to this film with few expectations because it was about the only one I had not seen. I am not a horror film fan, even though some I have found very entertaining and insightful. Then I saw in the credits that the writer and director was Richard LaGravenese, scriptwriter of some of my favorite films—The Fisher King, Freedom Writers, The Horse Whisperer—and my hope for a good film experienced soared. Nor was I disappointed, LaGravenese doing a good job of condensing the novel by Kami Garcia, Margaret Stohl that combines Southern gothic romance with the horror genre. (Full disclosure: I am accepting the word of others, not having read the book.)
In a slew of other movies we have been treated to Romeo and Juliet love affairs between a human and a vampire, between a human and zombie; and now it’s between a human and a witch—oops, make that “caster” as in “spell caster,” our heroine, 15 year-old Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert), preferring that term over the older, more prejudicial one. In her world, as in Oz, there are good casters and bad ones (again “light” and “dark” are preferred adjectives). In 75 days Lena will learn which she is meant to be at the casters’ ceremony known as the Claiming. Her soul will be chosen either for the dark side or the light side, though part of what makes the script so interesting is that the question of freedom of choice is also included in the plot.
Set in the South Carolina town of Gatlin, the film is narrated by Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich) who can hardly wait to graduate from high school so that he can head for New York. A lover of books, such as To Kill a Mockingbird, he is somewhat the outsider. He loves Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five because its hero so often shifts from one world to another through some kind of a space or time warp. Ethan has been having dreams about a dark-haired girl on a Civil War battlefield, and lo and behold, she shows up as the new girl in class. Lena is immediately dissed by two of the girls in the class, one an ex-girl friend of Ethan’s. Thus when Ethan approaches Lena, she is hostile to him as well. However, as he shows that he is not “ilke the others,” this slowly changes, Lena warming to him, even though she knows that loving him can endanger his life.
Lena lives with her guardian uncle, Macon Ravenwood (Jeremy Irons), a caster on the dark side who tries hard to hold in check his evil impulses for the sake of his niece. He definitely does not want the human Ethan hanging around. After Lena shatters the windows of her classroom while being harassed by two classmates, the good citizens of the town decide to ban her at a meeting held in the church, but Macon shows up and in no uncertain terms insists that Lena will be coming to class.
In this meeting we meet the wonderful Emma Thompson in the first of her two roles, that of the Christian bigot Mrs. Lincoln who adamantly leads the Forces for Good in the town. Later, the actress is Lena’s mother Sarafine who takes over Mrs. Lincoln’s body. The third fine veteran actor in the cast is Viola Davis whose Amma is a friend/servant of Ethan’s family and the town librarian, and more. Emmy Rossum also shows up in a red sports car as Cousin Ridley Duchannes, a caster from the dark side who turns out to be quite a temptress. I think these veterans had more fun in their parts than the two young principals.
The film is realistic in its depiction of a small Southern town by showing that the church is important in its life. Unfortunately most of the members are conservative fanatics who think that Harper Lee’s great novel should be banned. However, this does not include everyone, the church-attending Ethan and his friend Link being free of narrow-mindedness, as well as Amma, who at one point says, “God gives us what we can handle, even if we don’t believe it ourselves.” When Ethan learns that Amma also is a caster he says, “What I can’t figure is, you go to church everyday, how do you believe in all of this and still believe in God?” She replies, “God created all things didn’t he? Only man will decide which ones is mistakes.” Best of all, is the Reverend Stephens (Randy Redd) who at the meeting where the Duchannes are being castigated by Mrs. Lincoln says very little, so that we wonder about him. However, in a church worship service attended by virtually everyone, he lays aside his prepared sermon and gives a short homily on the nature of sacrifice that includes, “… it requires free will to give up something for someone you love, or something or someone you love more than yourself.” This becomes pivotal for Lena: she loves Ethan, but because a family curse says that says the one she loves will die, she decides to break with Ethan for his own good. There is also a lot of mumble jumble about a charm, and of course, there is the re-enactment of a Civil War battle in which the costumed lovers are a part, all leading up to an explosive climax that you will long remember—because it is someone else who makes the sacrifice that will free Lena and the family from the curse.
The film, of course, is aimed at teenagers, and it offers them far more than the Twilight series does. Warm Bodies, as you can see by my review in this issue also is a good film for teens, but the script for this film has far more witty dialogue and some observations about the dark side of life, God, love, and sacrifice well worth discussing.
1. How does Ethan stack up as an outsider, compared to other such films? What do books add to his life, while at the same time separating him from his peers? (Note the interchange between him and his ex-girl friend at the beginning of the film.)
2. What do you think of Lena when you first see her in her thrift store get-up? She is told that she will be “claimed” at her 16th birthday ritual: how does choice enter into this? Note that in one version of Les Miserables the Bishop, in keeping Jean Valjean from being re-arrested, says that he has now “claimed” him for God: how does the story show that Valjean had to accept his being claimed? How are we “claimed’ by circumstances, Fate, or God, and yet have to make a decision about this?
3. What do you think of the interchange with Lena when Ethan observes, “Everybody has to deal with s—t in their lives Lena. You want to be a normal human what do you think that is? We don’t have powers to change anything anytime we want. Being human is feeling bad, it’s feeling pissed off, it’s feeling scared, it’s you not being able to do anything about it until you don’t feel that way anymore till you can just see your way out of it. And I yelled at you because I care about you, that’s what normal people do who love each other! When one of them is acting like a brat! Now would you please stop raining on me!
4. What do you think of Macon, a dark caster, and yet striving to prevent his niece from suffering his fate? How does his eventual act show that choosing is always an option for us?
5. The film is not exactly a tribute to motherhood, is it? What has the darkness apparently done to Sarafine’s maternal instincts? Although handled somewhat lightly in this film, compare her relationship to her daughter with that of the mother-daughter in Precious.
6. Do you think, as some have stated, that the film is anti-Christian? If so, then how do you explain Reverend Stephens: homily?
I don’t want to preach today, instead I just wanna talk to you about a word we don’t hear much anymore. Sacrifice. It’s not what I would call a modern word. People hear the word sacrifice, and they become afraid that something will be taken away from them or that they will have to give up something they couldn’t live without. Sacrifice, to them, means loss in a world telling us we could have it all. But I believe true sacrifice is a victory. That’s because it requires free will to give up something for someone you love, or something or someone you love more than yourself. I won’t lie to you. It’s a gamble. Sacrifice won’t take away pain and loss, but it wins the battle against bitterness, the bitterness that dims the light on all of the true value in our lives.
7. What do you think of the placing of the homily in the plot? That is, how does it prepare us for what Lena does next? How is her trying to break with Ethan a sign of true love? How is she inadvertently following the apostle Paul’s advice to the Philippians?
8. What value does our society seem to place on sacrifice: that is, do you thing the pastor is right that most people are afraid it means giving up something important? (See what Jesus says about this in Matt. 16:24-26.)
9. How is Amma’s statement, “God gives us what we can handle, even if we don’t believe it ourselves,” like what the apostle Paul says 1 Cor. 12:7b-9?
10. What do you think of the ending? Were you surprised by the one who made the sacrifice? Why or why not?