A teen-oriented thriller for whom the word “bewildering” fits hand-in-glove, The Curse of Downers Grove is one of those movies that holds your attention for most of its length if only because a thoughtful viewer (that’s me?) is so busy trying to figure out if it’s complete and utter nonsense, or if something slightly deeper and more ambitious is going on. Co-written by Bret Easton Ellis (yep) and director Derick Martini, this drama represents an unusual type of big screen failure, vacillating wildly as it does between earnestness and goosing spookitude, never committing to the sort of referential nature or full-tilt insanity of could-be progenitors like Scream, Urban Legends or All the Boys Love Mandy Lane.
Based on the 1999 novel Downers Grove by Michael Hornburg, the film unfolds in a small Illinois suburb of the same name, where for nine years running a teenager has died—via a variety of circumstances, some mundane, some mysterious—just before senior graduation. When their mother (Helen Slater) leaves for an out-of-town trip with her new boyfriend, Chrissie (Bella Heathcote) and her younger, 15-year-old brother Dave (Martin Spanjers) hunker down to avoid the curse and most definitely not throw a party at their house.
Chrissie is the town skeptic, and early on there’s something a bit extra, and pleasantly punchy, in her dialogue; she’s the well-adjusted, self-aware teenager who’s kind of “over” high school and ready to move on with the next chapter of her life. Chrissie nurses a crush on local mechanic Bobby (Lucas Till), and maintains a friendship with Ian (Mark Young), the neighbor who seems keen on reminding her that they’ve known each other since kindergarten. But when her best friend Tracy (Penelope Mitchell) convinces her to go to a party on the other side of town, Chrissie is almost raped by Chuck (Kevin Zegers, effectively loathsome), a local community college star quarterback and the son of a retired police officer (Tom Arnold). From there, things get sufficiently weird, as Chuck takes exception to Chrissie’s eye-gouging escape and begins a campaign of harassment targeting Chrissie and her friends.
It’s pat, retrofitted criticism, sure, but it’s typically not a good sign when a movie misspells the name of the author of its source material in its end-credit “thank yous,” and that’s what happens with The Curse of Downers Grove. Martini has had an interesting career, co-writing and starring in the entirely enjoyable little independent comedy Smiling Fish & Goat on Fire, and helming the less successful divorce dramedy Lymelife. The Curse of Downers Grove, though, represents a more curious underachievement; Martini never feels particularly connected to the material, and so from early on the movie works like an exercise in arbitrariness.
The film sets up this curse hanging over the heads of its central characters, but doesn’t plumb it for lingering tension, at least as far as it relates to the actual story. Textual inserts over the opening credits, as well as a bit of voiceover narration, suggest it could have something to do with a Native American burial ground. There are also vague hints, by way of waking visions, that perhaps Chrissie knows something about this hometown jinx, or maybe that she and Chuck have shared nightmares. None of this, however, coalesces into anything meaningful, or even just sensibly formed enough on a basic level as to where it would influence the narrative. So while scene to scene there’s a little pop, the characters here behave in reliably incomprehensible ways.
What most sinks the film, though, is a litany of extraordinarily dumb moments. Some are merely inelegantly interwoven (to set up the finale, Dave pops into a scene to let Chrissie know that he keeps the shotgun their absentee, addict father left in his room, under his bed), but most are flat-out false in their construction. After Chrissie first tells Bobby of Chuck’s attempted assault, he tells her she’s “pretty cute when she’s worried” (!); later, when Chrissie and Bobby are interrupted in his car at the town’s make-out point by Chuck rapping on the window, Chrissie gets out of the car to talk to Chuck, telling Bobby, “This is something I have to do.”
Martini and cinematographer Frank Godwin cycle through all manner of visual affectations to help pad out the movie’s meager running time, but otherwise smartly know the best thing they have going for them, delivering worshipful screen-space to Heathcote, who gives The Curse of Downers Grove what little sense of rootedness and soul it possesses. When the film finally ends, not with so much a twisty flourish but instead a self-satisfied air-quote revelation, one finally has total, irrevocable confirmation: yes, that was complete and utter nonsense.
Director: Derick Martini
Writers: Derick Martini, Bret Easton Ellis
Starring: Bella Heathcote, Kevin Zegers, Penelope Mitchell, Lucas Till, Martin Spanjers, Mark Young, Helen Slater, Tom Arnold
Release Date: August 21, 2015
Entertainment journalist Brent Simon is a sworn enemy to auto-play website videos, as well as a member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.