Fox’s run helming the X-Men franchise will always be regarded for its trailblazing origins, as the 2000 hit original opened the door for our superhero-obsessed culture. Outside of that, their tenure has been stigmatized by a rocky track record, with megahits like Logan and Deadpool being far rarer than the flops (Dark Phoenix) and poor decisions (bringing back Bryan Singer) that marred the franchise. Fox’s X-Men swan song The New Mutants, which has been delayed for over two years, is now seeing the light of day with an unceremonious release. Despite the circumstances, this genre-hybrid registers a promising, albeit slight, impression through its coming of age approach.
The New Mutants follows Danielle Moonstar (Blu Hunt), a traumatized teen who is captured and contained in a secret facility under the suspicion of wielding mutant powers. Along with four other mutants, the brash Illyana (Anya Taylor-Joy), the religiously-repressed Rahne (Maise Williams), and the tortured duo Sam (Charlie Heaton) and Roberto (Henry Zaga), the five bond while trying to escape from their wicked captor Dr. Reyes (Alice Braga).
In a time where most superhero films adhere to a crowd-pleasing formula, New Mutants brazenly develops its own voice in the subgenre. Writer/director Josh Boone and co-writer Knate Lee encapsulates a melody of intriguing inspirations into their final product, including shadings of Nightmare on Elm Street’s dream-like horrors, The Breakfast Club’s misfit adolescent protagonists, and Girl, Interrupted‘s confrontation of emotional traumas. That may sound like a murky concoction at first glance, but Boone and Lee deserve ample credit for weaving the tonalities together fairly seamlessly.
Their film is at its best when it operates with a sensitive light, allowing these damaged teens to intimately explore their sense of self as they wrestle with their powers and lingering emotional pains. Most X-Men films have steeped themselves in the material’s allegorical connection to societal outcasts, but New Mutants embraces the metaphor with more panache than most of its predecessors. The script embodies a plethora of commonplace teenage growing pains in its effort to earnestly convey adolescent experiences (personal discovery and self-acceptance being key ideals), unabashedly allowing its characters to be emotive and flawed in a way that most super-powered protagonists rarely are. Some of the performances operate well under these conditions. Leads Blu Hunt and Maise Williams develop a natural bond as a romantically-entwined pair, while Anya Taylor-Joy conveys the character’s cocksure attitude with depth and movie star charisma.
Under all the angst, Boone still delivers some technically accomplished thrills. New Mutants possesses a more significant horror sensibility than an action one, using its solid effects work to viscerally convey the character’s demons. Set against the backdrop of a sterile medical facility that operates to confuse and suppress the teens (the teens think they are training to be X-Men), Boone uses the horror beats to create a lingering sense of unease throughout. These sequences work to twist the character’s viewpoint of their powers and sense of self, placing them face to face with the untamed dangers of their abilities. It may get a little jump scare happy at times, but I appreciate Boone’s effort to connect his horror bend to the character’s internal turmoil. This choice gives the scares more of an impact while offering a fresh change-of-pace to the superhero formula.
The New Mutants has a lot of engaging elements, yet it’s clear all these facets need more refinement. Boone takes big swings that are often hampered by a sense of clumsiness, often struggling to thread his character-building ambitions with clunky over-written dialogue that lacks naturalism (a couple of cringe-worthy jokes based on Danielle’s race leave a bad aftertaste). Some of the teens here are well-established, while others (particularly Roberto and Samuel) feel paper-thin and lack purpose. There are also some visual hiccups that derail the moody aesthetic, particularly the over-dim color grading that can make setpieces far more confusing to watch. I can’t blame people for dismissing this film, it’s certainly a mess that takes a lot of risks that don’t fully render as they should.
The New Mutants may be a mess, but it’s an endearing one at that. Josh Boone ties enough thoughtful concepts together to compensate for the film’s unkempt qualities.
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