It is usually other screenwriters who turn novels by Bret Easton Ellis (Less Than Zero, American Psycho) into movies. In the case of The Curse of Downers Grove, though, it’s Ellis turning someone else’s novel into a screenplay. He, along with director Derick Martini, has adapted “Downers Grove” by Michael Hornburg into a real oddity of a movie. I haven’t read the book, but the synopsis of it sounds only vaguely familiar to what I saw onscreen.
The Curse of Downers Grove starts promisingly enough. As she rides through town in the back seat of her mother’s car, Chrissie Swanson (Bella Heathcote) narrates, “Whoever named this town Downers Grove had a sick sense of humor. The suburbs are the ghettos of the meaningless. Unless your town has its very own curse where a senior dies each year the week before graduation. Now that suddenly gives your town instant meaning.”
That’s pretty much the movie in a nutshell and while it sounds intriguing, nothing comes of it. The synopsis of the novel says nothing about a curse; in fact, it doesn’t even have it in the title. I’m guessing the filmmakers took the story from the book and overlaid it onto the flimsy concept of this curse. There wasn’t enough substance in the curse part itself to sustain a 90 minute running time, so it’s merely background for what is nothing but a weird high school drama.
After a brief flashback to last year’s death, the “action” picks up “5 days to graduation.” While there is an awareness of an impending event that will fulfill the curse for this year, it really has nothing to do with what’s actually happening in the story. Chrissie and her brother (Martin Spanjers) live with their single mother (Helen Slater) after their drug-addicted father runs out on them. But Mom has a new beau, so she’s mostly absent when her kids get in trouble.
Specifically, Chrissie and her best friend, Tracy (Penelope Mitchell), have an unsavory encounter at a party across town when a rival school’s hot shot quarterback (Kevin Zegers) wants to touch more than his football. He’ll appear and reappear throughout the movie as the bad guy while Chrissie gets involved in varying degrees with two other guys: her childhood friend and neighbor (Mark L. Young) and her townie grease monkey crush (Lucas Till).
None of what happens seems particularly realistic to me, although maybe kids today literally poke each other’s eyes out and solve their problems with shotguns. Just to remind us that this wants to be some kind of supernatural thriller, the characters pause now and then to debate whether one death at the same time each year is coincidence or fate. Chrissie insists that it’s our choices that create events, while others, particularly Tracy, would rather believe in an arbitrary curse.
Above all, do not believe for a moment that The Curse of Downers Grove is a horror movie. It’s barely a thriller. It’s mostly a drama, but not a very believable drama. It’s one of those movies where adults are barely present and when they are, they’re ineffective. Even if the police won’t take action because a rapist’s father is an ex-cop, you’d think they’d be forced to do something when he leaves rotting carcasses in his victim’s back yard. Yeah, if curses were real, I sure wish they’d claim this movie.