Review: ‘Happiest Season,’ starring Kristen Stewart, Mackenzie Davis, Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza, Daniel Levy, Victor Garber and Mary Steenburgen

December 22, 2020

by Carla Hay

Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis in “Happiest Season” (Photo by Jojo Whilden/Hulu)

“Happiest Season”

Directed by Clea DuVall

Culture Representation: Taking place in the Pittsburg area, the romantic comedy “Happiest Season” features a predominantly white cast (with some African Americans and Asians) representing the middle-class and upper-middle-class.

Culture Clash: A closeted lesbian invites her live-in girlfriend to a family Christmas gathering, and the girlfriends agree to keep their romance a secret from the family during this visit.

Culture Audience: “Happiest Season” will appeal primarily to people interested in seeing a Christmas-themed comedy about families where the central couple happens to be members of the LGBTQ community.

Pictured from left to right (in front) Asiyih N’Dobe and Anis N’Dobe and (in back) Burl Moseley, Alison Brie, Kristen Stewart, Mackenzie Davis, Mary Holland, Victor Garber and Mary Steenburgen in “Happiest Season” (Photo courtesy of Hulu)

There’s a certain formula that romantic comedy films have when they take place during the Christmas holidays and much of the plot revolves around a family get-together: Siblings have rivalries, couples have relationship problems, and at least one person in the family has a big secret that they’re desperately trying to hide. “Happiest Season” (directed by Clea DuVall) follows a lot of the same formula, except that it’s a rare Christmas-themed movie that has lesbians as the central couple in the story. Sony Pictures Entertainment’s TriStar Pictures was going to release “Happiest Season” in theaters until the company sold the movie to Hulu.

In “Happiest Season,” which takes place in the Pittsburgh area, the big secret is that one of the women in the lesbian couple still hasn’t told her family that she’s a lesbian and in a live-in relationship with a woman whom her family thinks is a platonic, heterosexual roommate. Harper Caldwell (played by Mackenzie Davis) is a journalist at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and she’s been living with her girlfriend Abigail “Abby” Holland (played by Kristen Stewart), who is working on getting her Ph. D. in art history at Carnegie-Mellon University. Abby and Harper have been dating each other for a little more than a year and have been living together for the past six months.

Harper and Abby are both in their late 20s, smart and very friendly, but Abby is a little more introverted than Harper is. They have a very loving and respectful relationship, but they come from different family backgrounds. Abby is an only child. Her parents, who died when she was 19, were completely accepting of her sexuality when Abby told them that she’s gay. Harper is the youngest of three sisters, and her parents are very traditional and image-conscious. Harper has been afraid to tell her family that she’s a lesbian because she thinks that her parents will disapprove and reject her.

Harper’s parents Ted Caldwell (played by Victor Garber) and Tipper Caldwell (played by Mary Steenburgen), who live in a suburb of Pittsburgh, raised their children to be over-achievers. And now, Ted (a city councilman) is running for mayor, so Harper becomes even more conscious of the scrutiny that her family will receive because of this political campaign. It’s one of the reasons why Harper wants to delay telling her family about being a lesbian and the true nature of her relationship with Abby.

One evening, Abby and Harper take a romantic stroll during a guided Christmas tour of the neighborhood. Harper impulsively steers Abby on a detour to hop up on a stranger’s rooftop so they can get a romantic view of the city and make out with each other. But the occupants of the house hear people on the roof and almost catch Abby and Harper.

Abby barely escapes when she slips on the rooftop and finds herself hanging from the eaves of the roof. Harper tries to rescue Abby, but Abby falls into an inflatable Santa Claus in the front yard. The two women are able to run off just as the occupants of the house go outside and see the two intruders. This slapstick moment is a foreshadowing of some of the wacky-but-predictable physical comedy that happens in other scenes in the movie.

After this rooftop misadventure, Harper invites Abby to meet Harper’s family for the first time during the Christmas holidays. They plan to stay at Ted and Tipper’s family home for five days. Even though Abby says that she’s “not much of a Christmas person,” she agrees to the visit because she wants to meet Harper’s family.

Abby had committed to pet sitting for some friends during this period of time, so she has to find someone who can substitute for her on short notice. She enlists the help of her openly gay best friend John (played by Dan Levy), who is a literary agent. He agrees to take on the responsibility of pet sitting while Abby goes on this family visit that will be a turning point in her relationship with Harper.

John is somewhat stereotypical of a sassy and flamboyant gay man who usually has the role of a “tell it like it is” sidekick. However, John is also a confidant who has a lot of compassion and knows the true meaning of loyalty in a friend. Abby is going to need it, considering what she goes through in this story.

Abby tells John a secret: She plans to propose to Harper during this family holiday visit. John is skeptical of marriage, which he calls an “archaic institution,” but he’s happy for Abby and he wants the best for her. Abby explains to John why she wants to marry Harper: “It’s not about owning [her]. It’s about building a life with her.”

During Harper and Abby’s car trip to Ted and Tipper Caldwell’s home, Harper finally confesses to Abby that she’s been lying to her about what Harper’s family knows about Harper’s sexuality. Harper tells a shocked Abby that not only is her family unaware that Harper is a lesbian who’s been dating Abby, the family also doesn’t know that Abby is a lesbian too. As far as Harper’s family knows, Harper and Abby are two heterosexual women who are platonic roommates.

At first, Abby wants to back out of the trip, but Harper convinces her not to because she promises Abby that she will tell her family the whole truth after the holiday season and after the mayoral election. Harper says that she couldn’t live with the guilt if she thought her father would lose the election simply because some people wouldn’t vote for a mayor who has a child from the LGBTQ community. It’s fairly obvious that the city where Ted wants to become mayor has a lot of politically conservative voters.

At the Caldwell family home, Abby meets Ted and Tipper (who is obsessed with getting perfect photos for her Instagram account), who are somewhat condescending to Abby. They repeatedly call her “the orphan” and show gushing sympathy to her, as if she’s a little lost child. And because Tipper doesn’t know that Abby and Harper are sleeping together, Tipper tells Abby that she will be staying in a separate bedroom, which predictably leads to a few scenes of Abby and Harper sneaking into each other’s bedroom and trying not to get caught.

Ted is consumed with his mayoral campaign. One of his goals is to get the endorsement of a high-powered and influential donor named Harry Levin (played by Ana Gasteyer), who gives the impression of being a rich snob. One of the people who works with Ted in his campaign is Carolyn McCoy (played by Sarayu Blue), who is described as super-efficient and someone who is very concerned about the image projected by Ted and his family.

Because Ted and Tipper have had high expectations for their children, it’s created a fierce rivalry between Harper and her oldest sister Sloane (played by Alison Brie), who has inherited her parents’ fixation on presenting an image of having a perfect life. Sloane and her husband Eric (played by Burl Moseley) have twins who are about 7 or 8 years old: son Magnus (played by Anis N’Dobe) and daughter Matilda (played by Asiyih N’Dobe), who live such a regimented life, they come across almost like little robots.

Sloane and Eric used to be high-powered attorneys, but they gave up their jobs in the legal profession to make gift baskets for a living. However, pretentious Sloane refuses to call them gift baskets. Instead she uses this description when talking about her and Eric’s job to Abby: “We create curated gift experiences inside handmade, reclaimed wood vessels.” She also brags that Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle website Goop “picked us up and sales have been through the roof ever since.”

Harper’s other sister is Jane (played by Mary Holland, who co-wrote the “Happiest Season” screenplay with director DuVall), who has a bubbly personality but is somewhat nerdy and socially awkward. Jane, who is single with no children, has been working on a sci-fi fantasy novel for the past 10 years. Although it’s not said out loud, Ted and Tipper think of Jane as the “disappointing” child because she’s not as accomplished as her two sisters are and she has a tendency to be clumsy. Her parents think that Jane is handy when it comes to figuring out computer problems and Internet access in the house, but that’s about it.

Of course, a romantic comedy about a couple with honesty issues usually has additional complications, such the presence of ex-lovers who might or might not want to rekindle a past romance. In “Happiest Season,” Harper has not one but two people from her dating past who cause discomfort in different ways for her. The appearances of these two exes will have an effect on Abby too.

First is Harper’s ex-boyfriend Connor (played by Jake McDorman), whom Harper dated when she was in college. Connor doesn’t know that Harper broke up with him because she’s a lesbian, and he still has lingering feelings for her. Harper’s other ex who comes into the picture is a doctor named Riley (played by Aubrey Plaza), who was Harper’s first girlfriend when they were in high school together. Harper and Riley’s breakup, which is described in the movie, was very painful and it set the pattern of Harper being dishonest about her true sexuality to most of the people in her life.

And what do you know, both of these exes just happen to be at the same restaurant at the same time when the Caldwells and Abby are there for a family dinner. Connor was secretly invited by Tipper, who wishes that Harper and Connor would get back together. Riley is at the restaurant by sheer coincidence. Riley and Connor end up in other social situations with Harper and Abby, together and separately. And, as expected, Abby is jealous of Connor, while Harper gets uncomfortable when she sees Abby and Riley becoming friendly with each other.

Except for the lesbian aspects of the movie, “Happiest Season” doesn’t do much that’s different from a lot of predictable romantic comedies. There’s some over-the-top slapstick in the movie that might or might nor be amusing to viewers. This type of cheesy physical comedy somewhat lowers the quality of the movie, but it’s nothing that’s too detrimental to the story.

The romance between Harper and Abby is convincing, with Davis and Stewart handling their roles with great aplomb. Abby’s character is written with more realism and grace than Harper’s character, who is very selfish and immature during some pivotal moments in the story. Some of the best scenes in the film are those between Abby and John, as well as Abby and Riley.

“Happiest Season” works best when it touches on issues about the true meaning of family and the cost of living a lie. The movie doesn’t have any heavy-handed preaching though, and there are plenty of comical scenarios to balance out the more emotionally dramatic moments. “Happiest Season” isn’t an exceptionally well-made romantic comedy, but it has enough charm and entertaining performances to please viewers who like sentimentality with some slapstick.

Hulu premiered “Happiest Season” on November 25, 2020.

Review: ‘Irresistible’ (2020), starring Steve Carell, Chris Cooper, Mackenzie Davis and Rose Byrne

June 26, 2020

by Carla Hay

Chris Cooper, Brent Sexton and Steve Carell in “Irresistible” (Photo by Daniel McFadden/ Focus Features)

“Irresistible” 

Directed by Jon Stewart

Culture Representation: Taking place mostly in the fictional working-class town of Deerlaken, Wisconsin, the political comedy “Irresistible” features a predominantly white cast (with a few African Americans and Latinos) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A high-profile and experienced Democrat National Committee strategist arrives in Deerlaken because he thinks he can groom a future Democratic presidential candidate by getting him elected a Democrat mayor of Deerlaken, but this mayoral campaign faces stiff competition from the campaign of the Republican incumbent.

Culture Audience: “Irresistible” will appeal mostly to fans of Steve Carell and political comedies, but the movie is nothing more than a series of lazy stereotypes.

Rose Byrne and Steve Carell in “Irresistible” (Photo by Daniel McFadden/Focus Features)

Contrary to what it looks like in the trailer for the political comedy “Irresistible,” this smug and annoying movie is not centered on a possible romance between Democrat National Committee strategist Gary Zimmer (played by Steve Carell) and Republican National Committee strategist Faith Brewster (played by Rose Byrne), as they’re pitted against each other in a mayoral campaign battle in the fictional working-class town of Deerlaken, Wisconsin. Byrne’s Faith Brewster character isn’t in the movie every much, even though photos and images of Byrne in the movie’s marketing materials make it appear is if she’s a co-lead actor in the movie. She’s not. She has a small supporting role.

Instead, “Irresistible” (written and directed by Jon Stewart) is very much enamored with making the condescending, posturing “liberal” Gary Zimmer the center of the story. It’s at least commendable that “Irresistible” did not try to completely copy the “love/hate/we know they’re going to get together” relationship of political opposites that was on display in director Ron Underwood’s critically panned 1994 comedy flop “Speechless.” Geena Davis and Michael Keaton starred in “Speechless” as political speechwriters working on rival campaigns—a story inspired by the real-life romance of James Carville and Mary Matalin, except that in “Speechless,” the woman was the Democrat and the man was the Republican.

In “Irresistible,” Gary is the worst kind of liberal: He thinks he’s open-minded and progressive, but he has the same old-fashioned stereotypical beliefs about women and people of color as the conservatives he says he despises. It’s unclear if writer/director Stewart (who is an outspoken liberal in real life) intentionally set out to do a satire of this type of self-congratulatory liberal, but the end result is a comedy film that takes itself way too seriously.

And, quite frankly, the screenwriting for “Irresistible” isn’t very good at all. Just because Stewart wrote a lot of jokes and won several Emmys when he hosted “The Daily Show” from 1999 to 2015, that doesn’t mean he’s a talented screenwriter for movies. “Irresistible” (not to be confused with the 2006 “Irresistible” love-triangle drama, starring Susan Sarandon, Sam Neill and Emily Blunt) is also an odd name for a political satire/comedy, since many people find politics to be the opposite of irresistible and actually quite repellent—much like how the competing political strategists in this movie are repulsive characters.

“Irresistible” starts off with a montage of photos of U.S. presidential campaigns from various Republican and Democrat nominees, from 1968 to 2016. The movie then shows Gary and Faith experiencing Election Day for the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. Faith is reveling in the victory of Donald Trump, while Gary is crushed by Hillary Clinton’s loss.

The rest of the story then pivots to Gary’s point of view, as Faith only pops up here and there for the rest of the movie. Gary comes across a viral video of a former Marine-turned-farmer in Deerlaken (pronounced “Deer-locken”), giving a passionate pro-immigration speech at a town council meeting about undocumented workers. That farmer is Jack Hastings (played by Chris Cooper, in one of his long list of “folksy, salt-of-the-earth” roles), a widower who tells an anti-immigration city official in front of the assembled crowd: “I’m not saying you’re a bad person. I think you’re scared.”

Gary tells his assembled team at his headquarters in Washington, D.C., that this farmer could be a promising candidate to win a future U.S. presidential election because Jack is a hero ex-Marine who looks conservative but talks progressive. As far as Gary can tell, Jack is not affiliated with any political party and has no political aspirations, but Gary thinks he’s come up with a brilliant idea to groom Jack into a Democrat: Gary wants to go to Deerlaken to help Jack run for mayor.

“He’s a Democrat but just doesn’t know it,” Gary says arrogantly about Jack. Gary also crudely describes Jack to his team as “a man who makes Joe the Plumber look like [1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael] Dukakis in mom jeans and a fucking Easter bonnet.” This “joke” only works with people who know about U.S. presidential campaigns from the late 1980s and early 1990s.

When Gary tells his team that he wants to get Jack elected, it’s a problematic scene that reduces the few people of color in the scene (three Latino men and one black woman) as tokens who only speak up when Gary talks about needing representation from their racial groups. He condescendingly tells them that Hillary Clinton lost the election because not enough black people and Latinos showed up to vote for her. (Gary conveniently forgets to mention all the white citizens who voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, but didn’t vote for Clinton in 2016, even though Obama campaigned for her.)

Debra Messing has a brief, uncredited cameo in the scene as another “liberal” DNC staffer who thinks she knows best, by saying the best strategy for Democrats to win the next presidential election is to get more black and Latino citizens to vote. The Latino men in the meeting agree, and join hands with the Debra Messing character, while shutting out the black woman sitting in between them. The men utter something in Spanish in solidarity.

The only black DNC staffer (played by Denise Moyé) in the meeting speaks up, by saying that she agrees with Gary’s idea of expanding the Democrats’ base and not taking votes for granted. The Debra Messing character (who also doesn’t have a name in the movie) sheepishly agrees.

It’s a cringeworthy, pandering and poorly written/depicted scene. The one thing that’s fairly accurate is how Gary, like a lot of people in power, think they can speak for all racial groups on their team, without actually checking to see how the team members from different racial groups actually feel about those topics.

At any rate, by the time Gary and his nearly all-white team head to the nearly all-white Deerlaken, his massive ego thinks that he can roll into town and tell these people what to do because he’s a big-city intellectual liberal who’s a big-shot strategist from the DNC. Of course, the movie’s biggest credibility plot hole is that in real life, a political strategist with this amount of clout would not waste all this time to get a small-town mayor elected. Why? There’s not enough money in it for the strategist.

Gary convinces Jack to run for mayor as a Democrat by saying things like: “I know you don’t think of yourself as a Democrat, but after hearing your speech, I can assure you, you are. And I would like to offer you my company services to do so … Democrats are getting our asses kicked because guys like me don’t know how to talk to guys like you.”

Faith finds out that Gary is in this small town for this campaign, so she shows up in Deerlaken to be the strategist for the Republican incumbent Mayor Braun (played by Brent Sexton), because apparently she has nothing better to do with her time either. Faith and Mayor Braun don’t get nearly as much screen time in the movie as Gary and Jack do, but these sparsely written Republican characters are also written as stereotypes. Faith could easily pass for a Fox News anchor, while Mayor Braun uses Republican tropes in his campaign, such as the love of God, guns and country folks.

Multiple times in the movie, “Irresistible” makes a heavy-handed point about campaign finances and how money can corrupt politicians. Gary is obviously in politics for the money and power. Therefore, it doesn’t ring true that someone like him would get so caught up in a small-time mayoral campaign. It seems like this common sense was thrown out the window when Stewart was writing the screenplay, whose only purpose seems to be portraying people in the political process as broad clichés.

When Gary arrives in Deerlaken, all the predictable stereotypes are on display.  (Although Deerlaken is supposed to be in Wisconsin, the movie’s Deerlaken scenes were actually filmed in Rockmart, Georgia.) The only thing that Stewart didn’t do to add to the condescending stereotypes of Midwestern rural people is have anyone chew on hayseed.

The volunteers for Jack’s campaign aren’t very smart, which is the movie’s way of saying that people in this area are very uneducated. When the volunteers start calling people on their phone lists, they find out they’re accidentally calling each other at campaign headquarters instead of voters, because the volunteers mistook the office phone list for the voters phone list. And it takes Gary to point out this mistake to them. That’s how “dumb” these locals are.

Gary is staying a motel where the motel bar is also the “front desk.” It’s a bar where men wear flannel shirts and have names like Big Mike (played by Will Sasso) and Little Mike (played by Will McLaughlin) and don’t seem to have an education past high school. The motel and the town are so “behind the times” that they don’t even have Wi-Fi or broadband service throughout most of the town. They mostly access the Internet through dial-up service. The annoying screech of a dial-up modem connection is a running “joke” in the film.

And there’s a badly written scene of Gary and some of the men on his team parked in a car outside the town’s high school, one of the few places with Wi-Fi access. Gary and his team are asked to leave, but they refuse, so they get kicked out of the parking lot because the school’s security people think it’s a car full of possible sexual predators.

Even when Gary gives a lustful stare when he first sees Jack’s 28-year-old daughter Diana (played by Mackenzie Davis) at Jack’s farm, that lust turns to some disgust when he sees that she’s got her hand up the rear end of a cow. For most of the movie, Gary and his team underestimate Diana’s intelligence because they think she’s an ignorant farmer’s daughter who doesn’t know much about politics. It still doesn’t stop Gary from flirting with Diana, but he’s mostly focused on winning the campaign for Jack.

Two of the people on Gary’s team are nerdy pollster Kurt (played by Topher Grace) and abrasive digital analytics strategist Tina (played by Natasha Lyonne), who clash with each over about how they think their respective voter analysis is better. Tina huffs when she dismisses Kurt’s polling numbers by saying that people’s computer usage is a more accurate picture of who voters are: “A digital footprint is your true self.”

When Kurt and Tina get into a little verbal tiff during a campaign meeting, Diana speaks up and says to Tina, “Surely, people are more complete than their online transactions.” Tina snaps back, “Says the woman with three cats and intense [Internet] search history of the herpes virus.” This is what’s supposed to pass as humor in this movie.

In fact, there’s very little humor to be found in “Irresistible,” which is a waste of this talented cast. Faith and Gary have some obvious sexual tension with each other, but it’s written in such an off-putting way that it’s just not as funny as Stewart probably thought it was when he wrote the script.

For example, there’s one scene where Faith calls Gary “fat,” and then she gives him a long lick on his face like it’s an ice cream cone. In another scene, Gary and Faith have an argument and then say that whichever of them loses the election will have to perform oral sex on the other for an hour. This oral sex “dare” is described in much cruder terms in the movie.

By the end of “Irresistible,” there’s kind of a dumb plot twist that reiterates some of the preachy messages of the film. But this plot twist doesn’t matter too much, because the entire plot of a strategist like Gary being in a small town like Deerlaken was an ill-conceived idea in the first place. And “Irresistible” also has an unnecessary gimmick of showing three different epilogues (the last epilogue in the film is supposed to be the “real” one), even going as far as having the end credits start to roll during each epilogue, just to trick/confuse viewers over which epilogue is “real.”

With so many U.S. citizens in real life who are already cynical or apathetic about politics, “Irresistible” isn’t going to make people feel good about participating in the political process. And although “Irresistible” is obviously influenced by “The Candidate” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” it definitely won’t be considered a classic like those films.

Focus Features released “Irresistible” in select U.S. cinemas, digital and VOD.

Review: ‘The Turning’ (2020), starring Mackenzie Davis, Finn Wolfhard, Brooklynn Prince and Joely Richardson

January 24, 2020

by Carla Hay

Mackenzie Davis and Brooklynn Prince in “The Turning” (Photo by Patrick Redmond/Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures)

“The Turning” (2020)

Directed by Floria Sigismondi

Culture Representation: Taking place in a fictional Maine suburb, the predominantly white cast of characters represent people from the middle and upper classes.

Culture Clash: A supernatural ghost story, the main plot centers around a young live-in nanny who is being terrorized in a haunted house, and the two spoiled children under her care might or might not have something to do with it.

Culture Audience: “The Turning” will appeal primarily to horror fans who want a movie that doesn’t get too graphic in its violence, but the story leaves a lot to be desired in pacing and structure.

Finn Wolfhard and Brooklynn Prince in “The Turning” (Photo by Patrick Redmond/Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures)

Some people might say that we’re living in a golden age of horror films, because of the horror genre’s resurgence in popularity. But long after movie studios keep churning out more predictable horror flicks, “The Turning” will be a forgotten mishap not even worthy of a footnote in movies about menacing ghosts and haunted houses.

“The Turning” (directed by Floria Sigismondi and written by identical twins Chad Hayes and Carey W. Hayes) takes place in 1994, so smartphones and the Internet aren’t going to be used as resources to get the characters out of danger. “The Turning” is based on the Henry James novella “The Turn of the Screw,” which is a classic work of art that “The Turning” never will be. There is no mysterious uncle in the movie, as there is in the novella, and the movie takes place in Maine (instead of England), but the basic plot remains the same.

Viewers know that “The Turning” takes place in 1994, because in one of the first scenes, there’s a newscast on TV about the upcoming memorial for Kurt Cobain, the Nirvana lead singer who died a few days earlier, according to the newscast. The TV is in the apartment home of 20-something Kate Mandell (played by Mackenzie Davis), who’s moving out because she’s quit her job as a schoolteacher to take a job as a live-in nanny to an elementary-school-aged girl named Flora Fairchild (played by the precocious Brooklynn Prince), who’s a rich orphan living in a remote mansion called the Bly estate. Kate’s roommate Rose (played by Kim Adis) doesn’t want her to go, but Kate has made up her mind, because as she says to Rose, she’d rather be responsible for one possibly unruly kid instead of classroom full of them.

The opening scene of “The Turning” shows a terrified blonde trying to escape from the mansion by car. We find out later who that woman was, but for the time being, Kate is blissfully unaware of the terror waiting for her. As Kate drives to the foreboding mansion for her first day on the job, the first plot hole appears, because based on her awestruck reactions, it’s the first time she’s ever been to the mansion. Even if Kate was hired through an agency, it’s still makes Kate look less-than-smart to not see for herself where she’d be living and working before she took the job. Now that it’s been established that Kate isn’t the brightest bulb in the drawer, since she’s taken a live-in job without ever visiting the place beforehand, the story moves on to her making even more illogical decisions.

When she arrives at the mansion, she’s greeted by the grim and uptight house manager Mrs. Grose (played by Barbara Marten), who tells Kate something that would give pause to any person with common sense: Flora must never leave the family property. Kate is presumably supposed to be Flora’s home-school tutor, but the movie never shows Kate doing any teaching or even asking about Flora’s curriculum.

And then Kate gets a surprise when she finds out that she has to take care of not only Flora but also her troubled 15-year-old bother Miles (played by Finn Wolfhard, who’s best known for his roles on Netflix’s “Stranger Things” series and Warner Bros. Pictures’ “It” movies). Kate unexpectedly meets Miles when he startles her during his visit home from boarding school. Miles is every bit of the rude, insolent creep that he appears to be. He likes to play mean-spirited pranks on Kate and sneak up on her while she’s sleeping. It isn’t long before Miles comes home to stay permanently, because he’s been expelled from school for viciously assaulting a fellow student, by choking the boy and bashing his head into the ground. The kid’s parents have declined to press charges, which is why Miles hasn’t been arrested.

Even after Kate gets this information, she still stays. Mrs. Grose, the ultimate toxic enabler, makes excuses for Miles, and constantly reminds Kate that Miles and Flora are “thoroughbreds” and “privileged” and deserve to catered to by “the help.” She scolds Kate when Kate tries to discipline the kids in a reasonable way. It’s also obvious that Mrs. Grose knows a lot of the estate’s dirty secrets.

Throughout the course of the movie, Kate learns that several other nannies have quit and that three people have died on the property in the past few years: Miles and Flora’s parents (who died in a car accident) and Peter Quint, the horse-riding instructor, who died under mysterious circumstances. (Quint, who is seen in flashbacks and in photos, is played by Niall Greig Fulton.)

Mrs. Grose tells Kate that Quint was a bad influence on Miles (they would disappear together for hours), and Quint had some kind of sexual relationship with Miss Jessell (played by Denna Thomsen), the nanny who had the job before Kate did. The relationship ended badly, and Miss Jessell abruptly disappeared. Quint died shortly after the disappearance. Kate discovers Miss Jessel’s journal that reveals Quint had an unhealthy obsession with Miss Jessel and she was terrified of him. Even after getting all of these warning signs, Kate still stays. And she finds out the hard way what a mistake that is.

“The Turning” is director Sigsmondi’s return to helming feature films after a 10-year absence. (Her previous feature was the little-seen and underrated rock music biopic “The Runaways,” which was such a flop when it was released in March 2010, it was one of the reasons why its independent distributor Apparition went out of business a month after the movie’s release.) Sigismondi, who started her directing career with music videos and has been working mainly in television for the past several years, gets all the visual elements of “The Turning” right, for what could have been an intriguing ghost story. Kudos should also be given to the movie’s cinematography (by David Ungaro), the production design (by Paki Smith) and art direction (by Nigel Pollock), for creating a convincing atmosphere of horror and doom.

But it’s all wasted on a subpar screenplay that ruins the movie. The movie’s pacing also does little to build suspense. Kate has frightening encounters with the ghosts fairly early on in the story, but every time it happens, she has the same reactions: She screams, she blames the kids, and she decides to stay. It becomes too repetitive and ultimately annoying. There are also aspects of the story that could have been interesting but are instead dangled in front of the audience and never fully explained. For example, viewers will get no clear answers for why Flora isn’t supposed to leave the property and why she has a panic attack if she thinks she’s going to be forced to leave.

The actors do a very competent job with the problematic script that they’ve been given. Davis doesn’t have much to work with in portraying Kate’s personality or intelligence, because Kate is a very underdeveloped character who keeps making bad decisions. As Flora Fairchild, talented actress Prince, who had a breakout film debut as a foul-mouthed brat in 2017’s “The Florida Project,” is playing another girl who’s wise beyond her years while still maintaining child-like innocence in some ways. Wolfhard’s Miles Fairchild is obviously the more sinister sibling, and his sociopathic creepiness is actually more disturbing than some of the predictable scares that the ghosts inflict on Kate.

On a side note, it’s always kind of amusing to see these haunted houses suddenly have lights that don’t work, because the protagonists inevitably end up in dark rooms where they don’t/can’t/won’t turn on the lights. And if they’re using a flashlight or a candle to see, the flashlight or candle usually gets dropped when the inevitable ghost scare happens.

The Hayes brothers’ screenplay for “The Turning” really is the movie’s weakest link, which is such a letdown, since they’re capable of writing much better ghost-story horror movies. (Their screenwriting credits include “The Conjuring,” “The Conjuring 2” and “Annabelle.”) Most horror movies about haunted houses have to explain why the people in those houses don’t just move out after it becomes unsafe to live there. The reason is usually because they’ve bought the house and they recently moved into the house, so they’re already invested in staying. Moving out abruptly without another place to live could be an expensive mistake for them.

Back when the “The Turn of the Screw” was published in 1898, women didn’t have very many options on what they could do with their lives and where they could live. But it’s 1994 in “The Turning,” and Kate certainly has plenty of options that she foolishly doesn’t take. (Such as: Leave and get another job.) Another option, which most people in haunted houses do in horror movies, is to go to the authorities or consult with a spiritual expert to get rid of the ghosts. Kate does none of that, and as things get more dangerous for her, she still stays.

However, since Kate doesn’t own the mansion, and they’re clearly not paying her enough for her to justify staying, it doesn’t make sense that Kate stays as long as she does when she starts seeing ghosts, she gets locked into rooms, and she’s assaulted by mysterious forces. The movie gives a weak explanation for Kate staying: In a phone conversation, she tells her former roommate Rose (who practically begs Kate to quit the job and move back in with her) that she doesn’t want to leave because she made a promise to Flora to never abandon her, and Kate doesn’t want to emotionally damage the child. (It doesn’t cross Kate’s mind that the kid could afford to get a good therapist.)

You see, Kate has her own abandonment issues, because her father left Kate and her mother Darla (played by Joely Richardson) when Kate was a child. Darla has been in a psychiatric institution for several years (there’s a scene where Kate visits her there but Kate doesn’t stay long), and Darla might or might not have psychic powers that most people think are delusions. Kate has some hangups about possibly inheriting Darla’s mental illness and being perceived as crazy, which is the movie’s way of explaining why Kate doesn’t get help or report all the bizarre and dangerous things that keep happening to her on the Bly estate.

Darla likes to draw her visions, and she shows her artwork to Kate. The artwork is explained toward the end of the movie, which concludes in such a disappointing way, that it’s bound to confuse and frustrate viewers. (At the screening I attended, a lot of people gasped in disgust at the ridiculous ending.) “The Turning” is one of those movies that has a misleading trailer that makes the film look a lot better than it actually is. Just like a dimwitted person who knowingly stays in a haunted house after being attacked by ghosts, viewers should know what they’re getting into with “The Turning” and experience it at their own risk.

Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures released “The Turning” in U.S. cinemas on January 24, 2020.