Note: Saving Zoë deals with some dark elements that might trigger some, specifically in regards to sexual violence and/or violence against women.
The concept of the “teen movie” has evolved over the years. Initially used as a rebellion against the institutions of society, films like Rock ‘n Roll High School, Revenge of the Nerds, and Porky’s caused great splashes, both good and bad, with their earlier releases. Then, the era of John Hughes films in the 1980s kicked in, with films like The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, and Sixteen Candles (which all starred teen idol Molly Ringwald) taking over the world, which gracefully ushered itself into the ‘90s. Focused more on wit and less on crudeness, this period of teen films took much more intimate looks inside the lives of its subjects, tackling ugly subjects with an oddly stylish, and often funny, twist to it, with Clueless, 10 Things I Hate About You, and the cult sleeper hit Empire Records.
As society changed, so did the movies with it, and as adolescence became harder and harder in the age of social media, teen movies became less about hitting a target demographic and making a move *for* teens, and more about telling an authentic story *about* teens. Films like The Spectacular Now, Lady Bird, and Eighth Grade all exhibit the same attribute of a teen movie being told in a more mature, reflective light than anything else. Because of this shift, while we’re losing that charm that made teen movies of the past so fantastically fun, we’re gaining a level of authenticity that we’ve never been able to hear from young voices, and that’s a good thing.
In Saving Zoë, we follow Echo (Laura Marano), a high school freshman starting school the summer following her popular older sister, Zoë’s (Vanessa Marano) brutal murder. Even after a trial that exonerated Zoë’s boyfriend, Marc (Chris Tavarez), from her murder, Echo feels distant with not knowing who really killed her sister. With newly obtained excerpts from Zoë’s diary, Echo attempts to use her sister’s clues to figure out who her murderer was, taking her down paths darker than she could’ve ever anticipated.
Saving Zoë exists in a strange place as a teen movie. It initially plays out like a teen movie from the early 2000s: shallow, but stylish, as well as atmospherically involving. The world of Saving Zoë isn’t huge, or even particularly interesting, but the whole point of the film is to paint a picture of how horrible things can happen anywhere, even the places that seem uninteresting. Because it takes that tone, a lot of the more obvious shortcomings of the film fade to the background. The clunky acting (especially with many of the male supporting actors), awkward dialogue, and bizarre voiceovers don’t feel like as much of a problem as they would in a film that is trying to feel more “prestige,” which Saving Zoë does not claim to be. The amount of pretense that Saving Zoë lacks is actually refreshing. While we lose a bit of the narrative tension that a film that is taking itself less literally would create, we get to see the story unfold plainly and evenly, which in a film with as many curveballs as Saving Zoë throws, it helps the film feel leaner and more efficient as a storytelling device.
As if Gillian Flynn wrote a Babysitter’s Club novel, this film slowly begins to reveal a dark underbelly that changes the entire experience of the film. It starts off saccharine sweet, with innocence and PG-13 censorship abound. About halfway through the film, the plot takes a sharp left turn into a movie that’s far more disturbing than it is. In fact, the film, in its attempt to speed up its final act, goes in a direction quite cruel and tasteless. This decision to include such things in such graphic detail began to take this reviewer out of the experience quite a bit in discomfort. There’s a delicate line in dealing with dark, traumatic experiences on film without it feeling exploitative, and, strangely, Saving Zoë forgoes any subtlety it had up to this point and becomes something genuinely difficult to watch.
I can’t help but wonder if a story like Saving Zoë plays out better in prose, if only due to the expositional nature of the film through a few contrasting mediums. Many of the smaller characters, who may have had more detailed backstories and presence’s in the novel, are relegated to filler characters here. Luckily, both Laura and Vanessa Marano do a good job of painting two very different pieces cut from the same cloth. As real-life sisters, they both have wonderful chemistry in their scenes together, scenes that were often of a very heartbreaking nature. Alone, they still inject enough personality into their characters to have them feel like two separate people, despite much of the film focusing on Echo’s striking resemblance to Zoë. They have depth, both in writing and in performance, and that carries the film a long way.
Let’s call it Sharp Objects meets Skins if you will. Saving Zoë isn’t a groundbreaking film by any means; it’s visually pretty bland, the performances outside of the two leads are a bit lackluster, and the screenplay often makes some bizarre choices that affect the tone of the film, especially the final act that begins to feel more like a B-movie than a serious teen drama. Much of its darker elements could’ve been handled with far more nuance, but much of the film does feel authentic and absorbing thanks to its lack of ego and its dedication in fleshing out the two leads. While not wholeheartedly recommending it, when it winds up on a streaming service in the coming months, there are far worse ways to spend a rainy afternoon.
In theaters and on VOD beginning July 12, 2019.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.