Peter Jackson, known for his way around the horror genre, makes enormous leaps and bounds in this uniquely observant tale of adolescent girlish life.
A masterful Heavenly Creatures is quite a stepping stone for young actresses Melanie Lynskey and Kate Winslet getting their first start with "introducing" accompanying their names in the opening scrawl.
The setting in a tale strikingly adapted from actual diary accounts of Lynskey's 14-year-old Pauline by Jackson and collaborator Fran Walsh is 1952 Christchurch as the shooting in Canterbury, New Zealand vividly reflects the era. The opening almost looks like archival or home movie footage before a well-executed, unnerving sequence as a woman is rapidly approached.
Pauline's dreary existence is boosted with the arrival of insouciant, precocious new classmate Juliet (Winslet, who has that movie star look about her) who's had the chance to experience the world at a young age.
The movie is energized (and earns its name) from the girls' wildly imaginative streaks that is encouraged through their friendship fueled by an increasing desire of freedom and love. An alternate fairy-tale existence is a way to deal with adolescence, even as Juliet deals with the harsh effects of tuberculosis.
Pauline tries to manage through an imperious mother (Sarah Peirse), as Juliet's wealthy parents (Clive Merrison and Diana Kent) find a red flag in their togetherness (though later they decide that some time with each other would be best). In time, Pauline and Juliet become steadfast how to be with one another as Juliet's doctor father is remanded to England.
From the teenage vantage point, Jackson excels in opening up a tale of free-spiritedness and retreat from restrictive adults. There is joy for Pauline and Juliet in their utopian Borovnia with its clay-made residents. Borovnia is a place that can have more serious ramifications, even as the girls begin an erogenous exploration.
There is an unbridled beauty in the performances by an internally resolute Lynskey and extroverted Winslet, each playing off of the needs of Pauline and Juliet to dire effect. A sapphic bond is more than suggested but nicely muted in the root of its expression.
A gradually intense and vital period film almost feels like it was shot around the time of something like West Side Story. Jackson's work with his gifted production staff always comes to life in a lush, seamless ways, especially as the girls assume their "other selves" when making their presence known in a fictitious kingdom like Borovnia.
Here, an astute attention to detail from its strong sense of place to the use of WETA studios for some smartly (and not overdone) employed special effects goes a long way. Having an expert craftsman like Jackson and two bright newbies like Lynskey and Winslet under his wing relates a shocking true story through reality and hallucinatory fantasy.