by Sarah Silver

The Twilight Saga: New Moon
Directed by Chris Weitz, U.S., Summit Entertainment

Stephanie Meyer, Mormon, stay-at-home mom, and creator of the multimillion dollar franchise called The Twilight Saga, woke up one morning and decided she had to write down her dream. She had envisioned a chaste and unattainable vampire named Edward Cullen and his inexplicable fascination with a mortal high schooler named Bella Swan. Meyer couldn’t have predicted that females young and old around the world would soon be over-identifying with Bella, living vicariously through her intense first love, described, as a teen would, in repetitive and often banal prose that every now and then nails a specific emotion with such artlessness that it triggers a Pavlovian palpitation of the heart.

For New Moon, the second of four installments, Meyer has cited Romeo and Juliet and Wuthering Heights as her main inspirations, as the star-crossed lovers part ways, and a series of nearly fatal misunderstandings and hidden motives sabotage any chance they have at reuniting. Bella’s own Heathcliff effectively dumps her to save her from his bloodthirsty family, lying in a wan attempt to make it easier for her to hate him, and move on (“You’re no good for me, Bella”). The majority of the book is devoted to Bella’s dealing with the severity of this blow, and as it turned out first heartbreak sells just as well, if not better, than first love. The one recourse in her stultifying depression is Jacob Black, a childhood friend and part of the Quileute tribe native to Forks, Washington, where the saga unfolds. In Edward’s absence, Bella calls Jake her sun, and, for a moment, his sunshine is a passable substitute for Edward’s cold, shimmering moonlight.

The choice to pull a Harry Potter and hire a new director for the second installment turned out to be a good one. As mocked as the original film was by critics, Twilight’s often hysterical performances and over-the-top cinematography (the whole movie is blue, much of it shot with Dutch tilts) are bold and exciting in their way, and there was something satisfying about knowing that women were placed in nearly every position of technical and creative authority (with the exception of DP). Yet, while Catherine Hardwicke handled that one-two punch of unquenched teenage vampire lust with aplomb, the more brooding and internalized New Moon begged for a subtler commander.

New Moon is an elliptical film, its storyline more implied than spelled out, as if to assume we have all read the books (not a poor assumption, considering the saga has spent over 235 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list for children’s series books). There is no recap from the first film, and scenes play out like impressions or memories, allowing enough space for women to project their own romantic experiences onto the relatively blank slate that is Bella. Not only have the actors matured and grown better acquainted with their characters, but director Chris Weitz (American Pie, About a Boy) clearly speaks their language—the lead performances are much more honed this time around. Kristen Stewart fills out Meyer’s somewhat generic damsel of a narrator with the personality traits of a genuinely sensitive young woman. Robert Pattinson has toned down Edward’s tortured grimaces and is more relaxed and understated, even as he delivers his ludicrous breakup speech.

But it is barely legal Taylor Lautner (several fansites feature embedded counters ticking away the seconds until his 18th birthday) who steals the show here, at every opportunity doffing his shirt in seeming homage to classic Harlequin covers and eliciting collective quivering sighs from the audience with his near-misses at kisses. The affable Lautner wouldn’t look out of place amongst the brawny, good-time lads of Coppola’s The Outsiders, somewhere between Ralph Macchio and Tom Cruise. His presence is not imposing, though he has bulked up to FBMI (Fabio’s Body Mass Index). Despite Jake’s own grappling with his adolescent conversion to a monster (it turns out certain Quileute boys become werewolves once they reach puberty), Lautner’s baby face goes a long way towards maintaining the character’s sweet innocence.

Thanks to expert art direction by Catherine Ircha, we get a deep sense of place as it relates to character no matter how little time we spend in any given location. The chilling, inky blacks of the forest, the warm earth tones of Bella’s room, and the lived-in feeling of Jacob’s territory (the garage where he repairs a pair of motorcycles for him and Bella to ride, and the wolf den where he and the boys gather after school) take us out of the realm of supernatural phenomena by serving as easily identifiable staples of small town teenage life.

Also essential to the film’s success is the participation of Spanish DP Javier Aguirresarobe, whose camera deftly captures the actors’ interactions, often dancing around them in balletic circles that mimic their emotional orbital paths (Bella revolves around Edward, Jacob revolves around Bella). There is a scene in a movie theater where Bella is our focus, seated between Jake and Mike (a human suitor who doesn’t stand a chance—Bella prefers boys who have to tame their beastly sides). When the camera pans down to Jacob’s hand beside her, then back up to her face, Stewart’s expression goes from desire to confusion to reason in rapid succession. We then pan down to Mike’s hand, on the other side of her, and an inside joke is shared between the camera, Bella, and the audience. She has unwittingly been elevated to a position of great power; both boys belong to her, and, in its chaste way, the scene recalls Isabel Archer’s dream of two attentive lovers vying for her attention in bed in Jane Campion’s Portrait of a Lady. The film’s acute sense of the awkwardness of adolescent relationships, as further demonstrated in the next scene, when Jake casually grabs Bella’s hand and she uncomfortably wriggles out of his grasp (her nervous banter in this scene is delectable), elevates portions of the film away from the CW flavor of the original and closer to Truffaut’s Antoine and Colette.

“Twi”-hards should rejoice in Weitz’s fidelity to the book; it is laid out in the same proportions, with Edward’s absence and Jacob’s presence dominating the storyline, and the garish Italy sequence a mere flourish at story’s end. In the book, when Edward leaves Bella, Meyer conveys her comatose state with four pages that are blank save the words October, November, December, and January. Weitz’s cinematic translation, a time-lapse sequence showing the changing seasons outside Bella’s window as the camera revolves around our pale and silent heroine, lyrically evokes the doldrums of a first breakup.

New Moon dares to move at a slow, atmospheric pace, emphasizing performance and only heavily relying on CGI for a few choice sequences. Regardless of where the saga goes from here, this installment stands on its own as a lovely paean to feminine desire that goes satisfyingly beyond what one would expect from the adaptation of a pulpy teenage vampire novel.