The British film, This Beautiful Fantastic (2016) ticked off every “twee” magical-realism genre box and subsequently fell flat. This is not because I have snobby qualms about genre conventions. In fact, the movie was a fantastic amalgamation of everything that I tend to like: star-eyed heroines, dreamy narratives about self development, and an aesthetic that might be best described as Goth-Anthropologie Shojo. Take a look:
1. Quirky bookish heroine clearly modeled after Amelie with a dash of Lydia Deetz. Bella is played by porcelain-skinned period-actress Jessica Brown Findlay, in vintage blouses and witchy hats.
2. Bella wants to be a children’s book author and illustrator, of course. The director proves this by showing her plunking away on a vintage typewriter, of course.
3. Her (also quirky) love interest looks like a meme about Steam Punk cosplayers.He makes bird-shaped automatons inspired from all kinds of artists.
4. Everyone else is a quirky character inserted into her developmental arc: a cranky old “magical” man who teaches her the beauty of gardening with a forest green, vintage book all about horitculture; her bizarre yet protective librarian supervisor; her random live-in confidant/chef played by the guy who did Moriarty from Sherlock (wtf).
The film’s score is Amelie-esque as well, which really ought to be the icing on the cake. But the film is really boring! Really…”generic.” Hm. A TRIGGER WORD FOR ME.
One fear that novice writers like myself have is that everything feels familiar. Is my work derivative? Has my story already been told…and told better? This fear applies to everything I do, be it my scholarship or my creative writing. I think it stems from the emphasis people places on novelty, originality, and the terror of being compared (and finding lacking). And I might then conclude that The Beautiful Fantastic lacks precisely because it lacks novelty, originality, and can too easily be read as Amelie-Lite.
However, that isn’t actually the problem in This Beautiful Fantastic. The film suffers because the characters are not “real,” full complex characters and as a consequence, their struggles and development is irrelevant. I learned this when, as an exercise, I tried to rewrite the film as a story. I know nothing about the lead character Bella. Other than slight scenes where we witness Bella’s OCD/Asperger-like behavior and a quip that she was orphaned in a park, we know nothing about her. Is her great challenge basically that she has to prune a garden in a month? Is this supposed to be a metaphor about her writing? But we know nothing about why she isn’t writing or drawing.
And how is she related to the other characters? Why do we have a cook character? At times Bella is his savior, which is out of character seemingly, so what does he do for her development? How is the inventor/love interest related to her writing or her fear of flowers? And why is everything narrated through the POV of her grumpy neighbor, which is both inconsistent (because *spoilers* he dies. Well, not actually a big spoiler as the narrative arc is so obvious) and distancing (because we know even less about Bella’s motivations and emotions….and are also not given any real information about the neighbor)..
In sum, films like this fail not because they are generic but because they are inauthentic. There is no true attempt to build full characters and their stories, understand and communicate their struggles, and make the story meaningful. All of that can be done even while citing a hundred other memorable films, sound tracks, and storybook heroines.
Ahhhh, having worked through my discomfort with this…it is now time for me to go write.