Stuck in development hell ever since the faint whispers of a Fox-Disney merger emerged, Josh Boone’s The New Mutants is the final film in Fox’s hit and miss X-Men franchise, a young adult offshoot with dashed franchise dreams of its own. While it doesn’t close this twenty year series on a particularly sweet note (or even a sour one), it isn’t the calamity many had envisioned due to Disney’s reticence to tweak or release the final product. It is however a film stuck in the middle of every genre it is trying to fit itself into. A middling teen romance, an average superhero feature and a mediocre attempt at horror. Always holding back in service of an audience that never materialized, someone unfortunately told Boone and writers Boone and Knate Lee that less is more but when it comes to this John Hughes fantasy, the opposite is true.
Set in a isolated mental institution after Danielle Moonstar (Blu Hunt) finds herself the sole survivor of a devastating attack on her reservation by an unknown creature, she wakes up to learnt that she is a mutant. A person with powers among four other equally traumatized and troubled teenagers. Under the watchful eye of fellow mutant Dr Reyes (Alice Braga), each is trying to move past their problems so that they can escape this ‘hospital’, something that more resembles a prison than anything else. Desperate to discover her power and figure out her place while being tormented by nightmares and perhaps something worse, Danielle finds common ground with the many around her while she starts to realise the place of healing she has found herself in might not be the safe haven Dr Reyes proclaims it to be.
While many will point to last years Glass and how they share similar settings and ideas about superheroes and the power of denial, even dipping into the same tones and ideas. Each film also shares the impressive talents of Anya Taylor-Joy, only here she is lumbered with an unfortunate accent and a questionably thin backstory. However Boone’s film for all its hallucinations and ghoulish nightmares is what seems to be an extended riff on Hughes The Breakfast Club in all its 80s glory. This teen, coming of age story for all its lofty goals of being something new and dark, a different kind of superhero story is really just a tale of five disparate youngsters forced to grow up while under a forced internment. Sure this imprisonment is longer and more serious and the school library has been replaced with a commons room ripped straight out of One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest, but all the staples are there, including the unnecessary and tone defying comedy montage.
Boone fleshes out his story through an injection of darkness but not only are the stories he tells not nearly monstrous enough to resonate as clever horror does but the meager amounts of character development he provides through slim flashbacks says little about who these five are outside of their fears. From Illyana’s (Taylor-Joy) vague past abuse or Rahne’s (Maisie Williams) religious persecution for what she is, these brief acknowledgements of their troubles doesn’t make up for a film that feels all too brief and far too underdeveloped.
Despite a small budget in comparison to other X-Men features, Boone supplies a wealth of impressive visuals, not only through some breathtaking creature design that has clearly benefited by the extended limbo of a film in waiting but also in how he photographs the isolation they are subjected to. While Lee and Boone’s script doesn’t go too deep into any of the core cast, Boone’s eye for classic horror is keen but all too often his film pulls back, lumbered with the identity of an X-Men film, a 12A adventure that demands a 15 rating. Clocking in at 94 minutes, its a bare bones representation of the film it advertised and despite an honest love story at the middle of the film, a same-sex relationship in a Disney film, the cinematic equivalent of finding a unicorn, The New Mutants and their performers are not given the room to grow their film into sometime more, with Boone’s story begging to be a two hour story not one that only just reaches 90 minutes.
However much of what makes the film a disappointment is also what makes it work, at least in a serviceable way at least. The performances by Charlie Heaton, Hunt and Williams make the thin story function and feel fuller, Boone’s direction is great and his horror transitions are lively but too often cut short. This teen take on a sort of twisted Avengers feels like it could have been great with a more generous edit, one less hungry to cut and more willing to take its time with a few more tangible character beats. When I assumed New Mutants would never see the light of day due to Disney’s acquisition, i said that Dark Phoenix was a quiet whimper of a franchise ending, one that should have gone out with a yell. New Mutants is more in that direction, a rebellious story of freaks and things that make them tick, the things that really go bump in the night. It just needed a few more of them.