I am a reader and a movie lover. It’s often a challenge to watch a movie made from a book I read before the movie was even thought of. I remember really enjoying the book “The Lovely Bones” by Alice Sebold. I was pleased to find that the movie, directed by auteur Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings Trilogy) followed the book fairly closely. The movie stars Saoirse Ronan (Atonement) as murdered 14-year-old Susie Salmon, Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz as her grief-stricken parents, and Susan Sarandon as the fabulously characatured beaten-glamour lush grandma.
The movie opens with Susie speaking post-murder, narrating the story in her innocent, slightly bewildered adolescent voice. This voiceover technique allows us to make and keep a connection with her throughout the film. Susie talks us through her abduction, confinement and murder while following the drama unfolding within her family and then community. As a ghost, she has the preternatural ability to be anywhere at any time. She’s doing all this while experiencing a fantastically beautiful, whimsical and lovely post-death, pre-heaven playground, smoothing the hard edges of the death of a child for the audience.
Susie Salmon’s happy nuclear family is ripped apart by her presumed death. (They don’t find her body.) The movie bounces back and forth between the tragedy playing out in real life and the surreal beauty and fun of Susie’s between-the-worlds afterlife. Some of the supernatural scenes are almost silly: Big floppy hats, ’70’s flower power, psychedelic colors and swirls. Also, we already know she’s dead; there are no plot twists, no suspense, no resolution unless her killer is caught.
The only side story is one of the whispers and possibilities of a first love. Susie is murdered before she and her crush get to have their first kiss. There’s also an outcast, angst-ridden girl who can see to the other side. This unmatched pair end up finding out more about the murder than anyone else, including the police.
Ronan turns in a stellar performance, projecting an innocence and carefree youth that underscores the tragic and senseless loss of one so young. She’s anybody’s daughter/niece/neighbor. Her performance is so natural I forgot she was acting, which is always a good sign.
Sadly, the terrific job turned in by Ronan doesn’t portend great acting throughout the film. Mark Wahlberg, playing Susie’s tormented, out-of-his-mind-with-grief dad, does his best with the material. Unfortunately, the ’70’s just don’t play well today, at least not in this form. He looks a little uncomfortable with that shaggy hair and polyester clothes. And Rachel Weisz, for all her natural, if unusual, loveliness, tries hard to counterbalance Wahlberg’s violent grief with her arms-crossed, concerned-but-not-apparently-devastated mom turn. Rose McIver plays her younger sister, sharpening the loss felt by the family and providing the one brave, dramatic action step that begins to crack the case open.
The real scene stealer is Susan Sarandon, playing to perfection the stereotypical faded beauty turned smoking drunk, while being the only adult character to really express emotion that seems appropriate to the fact that there’s a much-loved daughter missing.
This is an unusual story, told well in the book, translated into a movie with only mild success. As a film afficianado, I can find virtue in most films, and this one is no exception. The real star is, fortunately, the real star of the story. Ronan carries the movie herself for a good part of the movie, giving me something to look forward to as this young actress grows and stretches and develops her natural talent even more. Worth watching if you just love movies. If you’re looking for a fine feature film I’d recommend skipping this one.