Saving Zoe


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Chris Tavarez, Laura Marano and Vanessa Marano in Saving Zoe
"Saving Zoe is, ultimately, a lightweight film about a serious subject." | Photo: Noah Kentis

It has become such an established part of the ritual of dealing with trauma that many people don't realise that the notion that talking through one's feelings with a stranger will help with healing is only a few decades old, or that, among psychologists, it's still quite contentious. Whilst it clearly does some people good, it may make things worse for others, and still others have their own pats to pursue. Echo (Laura Marano) is in the latter camp. She sees her mother doped up to her eyeballs; she sees her father burying himself in work; and despite the family therapists's insistence, she's not wrestling with any deeply buried sense of guilt or existential terror related to her sister's murder. What's bothering her is that she doesn't believe that the trial brought out the whole of the story.

Jeffrey G Hunt' adaptation of the popular young adult novel presents a teenage heroine who is straightforward and believable in a world that is not. More effective in capturing theme than the nuances of the plot, it tells a story we've seen repeated in cinema ever since Louise Brooks shocked audiences in Diary Of A Lost Girl in 1929: beautiful young woman breaks social boundaries, attracting the lust and disapproval of the audience, gets mixed up with bad men and comes to a sticky end. Echo makes no secret of the fact that she thinks her sister made bad decisions but she at least recognises how easy that is to do - she could hardly fail to be sympathetic when she still sees and talks to her sister all the time. Along the road to finding out what really happened, she risks making bad decisions of her own, getting dangerously close to some shady characters as she follows in the dead woman's footsteps like Gene Bervoets' character in The Vanishing.

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Entering the story in the middle as we do, we find the past filled out in flashback sequences which highlight the parallels in the sisters' lives. These also introduce us to Marc (Chris Tavarez), who was the dead woman's boyfriend and initially the prime suspect in the murder. What this did to a young black man in a primarily white area is only hinted at in brief scenes that remind us how much more routine the fear of violence is in less privileged parts of America. The way Echo draws Marc into her plans suggests an utter lack of awareness about the different risks he faces and although there's little exploration of this, it emphasises our heroine's unwitting selfishness. By showing her limitations, this adds to our awareness of her vulnerability.

Most of the young characters are self-centred and shallow, not altogether unrealistically, and older viewers will find gentle humour as well as dismay at the speed with which Echo's friends can shift from telling her how awful her life must be to telling her which boys they have crushes on. Life goes on, after all, and in and around the murder mystery are nicely observed scenes about the awkwardness of teenage dating, as well as reflections on pill-popping youth culture. Here Giorgia Whigham turns up as a young woman we can recognise as a junkie from her smudged eye make-up. Much of the plot hinges unashamedly on visual clich├ęs like this - and this, in turn, highlights one of its central difficulties. We need to believe that people wanted to exploit the dead sister because of her youth, yet the actress playing her could easily pass for 24. This is one of several areas in which the bad guys' behaviour simply doesn't make sense. Their world may indeed be ugly but in real life it doesn't work the way the writers think it does, and whilst it may be easy enough for sheltered teenagers to buy into it, anyone older of more worldly wise is going to struggle.

Saving Zoe is, ultimately, a lightweight film about a serious subject. It's competently handled and Marano is an effective lead. It's likely to hit all the important notes for fans of the book but it does little more, avoiding risks and thereby failing to find a voice of its own. If you're in the target audience then you'll find this a satisfying watch but it will be unlikely to stay with you.

Reviewed on: 09 Jul 2019
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Saving Zoe packshot
A high school girl tries to uncover the full truth about her sister's death.

Director: Jeffrey G Hunt

Writer: Brian J Adams and LeeAnne H Adams, based on the book by Alyson Noel

Starring: Laura Marano, Giorgia Whigham, Chris Tavarez, Vanessa Marano, Nathaniel Buzolic, Michael Provost

Year: 2019

Runtime: 85 minutes

Country: US


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