Since it's the kind of slow-building movie whose very premise is something of a spoiler, a pretty delicious one, let's get the consumer-guide jazz out of the way first. Hilary Brougher's YA-ish horror satire/romance/whatzit Innocence, adapted from Jane Mendelsohn's novel, boasts a wicked setup, some strong performances, several gloriously bloody spook-out images, and a movie-wrecking hypoglycemic listlessness. In its swoony middle, I yearned to give it a cookie.
Its heroine, Beckett (Sophie Curtis), has an inspired mystery to solve and all the secrets of a creepy-ritzy prep school to expose, but she's stubbed out for much of the film, victim of what appears to be the systemic drugging of the girls of Hamilton Prep by the gorgeous school nurse (Kelly Reilly). That nurse is the movie's chief marvel, a pert ginger vision of wised-up bad girl, a tall glass of some candied liqueur stiffer than it looks. Tending to uniformed schoolgirls, she always looks like she just left the Vanity Fair Oscar party — and like she's trying to keep her smile going even though she's just bitten into something supremely sour. She's horning in on Beckett's widowed father, but she plays nice as long as Beckett doesn't poke into her affairs. Considering the fact that schlumping Beckett is beset by ghosts and has found evidence of three suspicious suicides at Hamilton, it's a marvel they get along as long as they do. But just when it seems Beckett's about to take on the case in earnest, the plodding Innocence sends her to Central Park for a slow-mo montage of skateboard lessons. Seriously, this movie has a killer hook, but it plays like a tale told by someone nodding off while donating plasma. It sometimes even seems to forget what details it needs to establish: Five minutes in, Beckett walks for the first time through the swank Manhattan apartment her father has just rented. A knockout woman and her hunky son turn up beaming in Beckett's bedroom, happy to meet her. Will anyone who hasn't read the book get that these two aren't relatives and don't live there?
Things go nuts, eventually, with revelations of — well, look, the clues are the size and complexity of Duplo blocks. You'll likely suss out what's going on before dead-eyed Beckett even realizes there's a problem. I'm going to spill it now, so please go away if you're one of those people who suffers from the misapprehension that plot and revelation are the chief pleasures that movies can offer us. (Also, if you think that, please spend a few minutes watching Reilly coo at Beckett's hapless pa.)
Okay, here it is: The nurse and a teacher's lounge full of other beauties — the principal, the instructors, the therapist, and many of the Upper West Side moms sending their kids to Hamilton — all gather together to sup upon blood of virgins, which keeps the coven looking young and fabulous. They call these soirees "book club." The school's staff keeps kids drugged and encourages them toward "purity," the better to feed on their unspoiled youth — although the movie's never quite brave enough to satirize abstinence-only sex ed. But it is courageous enough to let its teen heroine unburden herself of her virginity at the time of her choosing with a partner she trusts, all for her own reasons. That's a new one for YA movies, right? A high-school having sex to save her own life?
The themes are fascinating, even if the movie doesn't live up to them. As this is a PG-13, the details of sex and sacrifice are undramatized. (Mendelsohn's lulu of a novel, which is not YA, makes clear that the Hamilton elite drink the teens' menstrual blood — in tampon tea-bag form.) If only writer/director Brougher had axed some go-nowhere mopery and let her characters discuss the ins and outs: Do ancient blood-cults subscribe to the prevailing notion of straight schooolkids that the only actual de-virginizing sex is penetrative p-in-v? Is it the act itself that makes a blood difference or is it the erstwhile virgin's response? Must a virgin climax? Does it matter to witch-vamps and unicorns if maybe she just wasn't into it?
The movie's called Innocence, yet it never investigates the implications of the word — or that key act. We never learn whether Beckett enjoyed it; instead, the script just sends her yawning off toward adulthood. Curtis is an appealing young actress, one who captures the self-involved mooniness of sad teens, but Brougher has her playing glazed-over in every scene, even the tense ones. We never see who Beckett is beneath the gel-cap of narcotics. Beckett wins herself a choice best friend (Sarah Sutherland, almost as funny as she is on Veep) and a winning-enough skate/sex partner (Graham Phillips, also admirably teen-like), but the movie never lets her confide in either, never lets her plan or work things out or clearly make a major decision before our eyes. Eventually, of course, she does face a tough choice, one involving a goblet of blood and whether or not to drink it. She holds it up to her face, covering everything except her eyes. Then, before we can see what those eyes reveal, the movie cuts to someone else, and then someone else still. Innocence has so much going for it, but every time there's a climax it fails to show us what its heroine is feeling.