Fever dream

The adolescent fantasy Heavenly Creatures is the best film Terry Gilliam never made

Peter Jackson might be the boldest English-language director working today whose films are seen by almost no one. His latest effort, Heavenly Creatures, should remedy that situation. Based on a real-life New Zealand murder case in which two adolescent girls plotted the murder of a parent they believed was impairing their plans to stay together forever, it's so bold, passionate, and perverse that it crosses just about every categorical line in cinema.

It's a tale of friendship that becomes a love story so pure and powerful that it transcends the boundaries of physical affection. It's a trenchant essay on the roots of creativity, and how the adrenaline rush of indulging your imagination can blot out reality completely. It's the best satirical look at the touchy bond between teenagers and their paranoid but loving parents since Rebel without a Cause. And it's a repository of dreamlike visual splendors so incandescent, and so phenomenally disciplined and intelligent, that it feels like the best movie Terry Gilliam never made.

The year is 1952, and the British territory of New Zealand looks and sounds rather like America during that period. Conservatism and propriety reign supreme; the men have short hair, the women long skirts, and the children vast reservoirs of barely subsumed passions.

Our heroine, Pauline Parker (Melanie Lynskey), is a frumpy girl with brown hair, freckles, a sweet smile, and a longing for escape. She's shy and neurotic, but her fantasy life is as rich as any poet's. Upon entering high school, she meets her ideal mate, Juliet Hulme (Kate Winslet), a lithe, blond, classically beautiful young woman who's as sarcastic and outspoken as Pauline is polite and reticent. Juliet is the kind of girl who will respond to a teacher's request that she write an essay about the royal family by standing up before the class and reading a hilariously smutty romp about fictionalized queens and princes that sounds like something Jeremy Irons might mail to Penthouse Forum.

Pauline nurtures a fiery crush on her newfound best mate. (And who wouldn't? As played by Winslet, a radiantly unselfconscious actress with sparkling, mischievous eyes and no internal censor, Juliet is everybody everyone in high school ever secretly wanted to be.) When Pauline's parents give her a diary for Christmas, she begins to chronicle her friendship with Juliet in its pages. She doesn't merely jot down her thoughts and daydreams, however; because Pauline has a restlessly inventive subconscious and a keen understanding of how to access it, she lets this beloved friendship serve as inspiration for poems, short stories, ongoing novels, fictional travel books, even operatic librettos.

When Juliet finds out what Pauline is up to, she breaks the best news Pauline has ever heard: Juliet has a rich fantasy life, too, and has been writing obsessively every since she met the girl. She feels the same powerful affection and loyalty for Pauline that Pauline feels for her. In no time, their friendship has become so strong that they begin to walk and talk and think like one another. They create an elaborate system of in-jokes, pop culture references, and made-up terms to baffle their parents and schoolmates.

One of Jackson's towering achievements is his depiction of just how real the girls' free-associative fantasies are. When they declare their adoration for singer Mario Lanza and even say a prayer to him by candlelight, Jackson doesn't make their indulgence appear childish in the least. When they hear one of his songs in their everyday lives, it echoes through the storefronts and forests of their small town as if God were cranking tunes on his own boombox. Conversely, when they announce that Orson Welles is ugly and creepy and frightening, they have fantasies about being chased home from the local cinema by him, complete with skewed camera angles straight out of a Welles movie, with the Welles figure in black and white and the girls in color.

They begin to resent, even despise, anyone who tries to intrude on their relationship. And when they begin exchanging writings and elaborating on each other's creations, formulating a complex alternate universe called "The Fourth World" populated by knights and ladies and serfs and barbarians and butterflies with eight-foot wingspans, their hold on the dirty details of daily life becomes tentative at best. They can enter their own fantasies at will, at the same time, just by holding hands and wishing.

A rumor begins circulating that the girls are lovers, and to Jackson's credit, he simultaneously shows us that these rumors are both essentially correct and hilariously wrong. Although the girls feel so comfortable with each other that they hug and kiss and frolic like lovebirds both in public and private, their friendship isn't a byproduct--much less a thinly veiled excuse--for their physicality, as is so often the case with teenage first loves. They feel close physically because they're welded at the cerebrum.

When Shakespeare wrote of a marriage of true minds to which no one should admit impediment, he could have been talking about Pauline and Juliet. Their love is so intense that it seems oddly chaste, as if two angels got tired of the responsibilities foisted upon them and decided to go off in a corner of heaven and play Dungeons and Dragons. They get so excited by one another's ideas (and by the drawings and maps and clay figurines they create to better visualize them) that they literally begin to shake. Sometimes they get so riled up that you expect their bodies to burn and fall apart and their brains to spring free and float around freely, communicating by telepathy.

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