The latest in a seemingly infinite line of Young Adult fantasies trying to command the attention – and disposable income — of tween girls, director Mark Waters‘ adaptation of the first novel in Richelle Mead’s best-selling book series is, like its predecessors, a hodgepodge of sci-fi/monster mythology stitched awkwardly to the banal melodrama of adolescent romance.
Zoey Deutch (also of 2013’s YA dud “Beautiful Creatures”) plays Rose Hathaway, a half-human/half-vampire known as a Dhampir, who is training to be the guardian of her best friend Lissa (Lucy Fry), a Moroi princess and heir to the throne of Dragomir. Despite their best efforts to hide out among the mortal population, the duo are brought back to St. Vladimir’s Academy, where cell phones and internet are replaced by chapel services and weapons training.
Recognizing her scrappy resilience and learning of the rare psychic bond that allows her to know Lissa’s thoughts, guardian Dimitri Belikov (Danila Kozlovsky) agrees to mentor Rose in her training. But when Lissa becomes a target for threats from an unknown adversary at the school, the bond between Moroi and Dhampir is tested even as Rose attempts to uncover the culprit and protect Lissa from danger.
Cinematically speaking, “Vampire Academy” exemplifies the pointlessness of trying to drive a square peg into a round hole. Waters, perhaps best known for the watershed teen comedy “Mean Girls,” seems to innately understand the complexity of girls’ feelings about boys, other girls, school, and growing up. But the screenplay by Daniel Waters (the director’s brother, who knows a thing or two about mean girls himself as the author of “Heathers”) is so preoccupied by the machinery of vampires and witchcraft and ancient hierarchies and secret societies that it fails entirely to create a coherent mythology for any of the neck-biting hocus-pocus that’s supposed to be going on.
Admittedly, vampire lore has been steadily diluted since the emergence of “Twilight,” which seemed to dictate that henceforth bloodsucking means being alternately dreamy and tortured. But despite the film’s nonstop barrage of expository dialogue (“You know it’s been two years since the crash,” etc.), not to mention Rose’s constant Juno-on-Jolt-Cola meta-commentary, it’s totally unclear why these characters even call themselves vampires, except when Lissa needs to take a bite out of her BFF’s shoulder for a 5-hemoglobin pick-me-up.
The bigger problem, however, is that St. Vladimir’s Academy is populated entirely by white, privileged a-holes whose affluenza has fully metastasized, making none of them — other than Rose, sort of — remotely interesting or likeable. If it weren’t for homophobia, slut-shaming, rumor-mongering, victim-blaming and bullying, they would apparently have nothing to do at all; meanwhile, aside from Dimitri, none of the faculty members do more than wag their finger disapprovingly at their students, and seem about as mature as the teenagers they’re supposed to be in charge of.
As Rose, Deutch gives a fussy, animated performance that too often overshadows her undeniable charisma. Burdened with the challenge of establishing the stakes (no pun intended) of the story while simultaneously taking the piss out of them, she ably if inconsistently juggles sincerity and self-awareness. Meanwhile, Fry delivers a one-dimensional portrait of alpha female self-indulgence, struggling to deal with tousle-haired dreamboats who throw themselves at her feet while petulant social climbers nip at her heels.
Playing their adult counterparts, Olga Kurylenko vamps (again, no pun intended) her way through a schizophrenic, disastrous performance as headmistress Kirova, while Gabriel Byrne does his best impression of Lloyd Bridges in “Hot Shots” as the feeble, benevolent Victor Dashkov. Unlike them, relative newcomer Kozlovsky tries to do more with less as Dimitri, but he ends up underplaying so much that he barely registers — a significant problem for a film where he’s meant to be an irresistible love interest.
About the only thing that remotely rescues “Vampire Academy” from total, discombobulating misguidedness is a feeble acknowledgment (long overdue in movies like this one) that the most important thing to the main character isn’t all of the ass she can kick or the lessons she’s learned, but whether or not the cute boy she’s, like, totally been crushing on the whole time actually likes her back. Ultimately more “Meaningless” than “Mean Girls,” “Vampire Academy” is a busy, overcomplicated empowerment fantasy with more hormones than brain cells, from a director seemingly eager to adopt the ethos “better clever than smart” without achieving either.