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Witchgirls

There's a thin line between muttering bitterly to yourself and casting spells -- at least that's the way it works in The Craft. Here, the bright girls who cross that line are three moody loners with crystals and incantations. They enlist the new kid in town, invoke the power of Manon and strut through school, kicking ass and taking names. Of course, it all goes horribly wrong; but until then, our heroines have a fun, albeit sloppy, ride in this fun, albeit sloppy, movie.

The moody loners -- Nancy (Fairuza Balk), Bonnie (Neve Campbell) and Rochelle (Rachel True) -- spend their spare time drinking, shoplifting from an occult store and trying to develop their powers. (If you try very, very hard, you can read "powers" as sexual maturity, but the script doesn't go out of its way to support any such subtext.) The white-bread students of St. Benedict's Academy deem the dark trio "the Bitches of Eastwick." Presumably, they're friends because no one else will talk to them.

Things are different for Sarah, the new girl; she might fit in. But when Bonnie sees her telekinetically playing with a pencil, the trio grabs her for their clique. Their "circle" is thus complete, and they quickly get past "light as a feather, stiff as a board" and set about solving problems.

Rochelle, a witch of color, detests a chubby blond (well, bleached-blond), who disparages nappy hair and uses words like "Negroid." (In a nice touch, the blond is played by Christine Taylor, who was Marsha in The Brady Bunch Movie.) With one simple spell, the teen coven shatters the peroxide menace.

Bad skin takes a little longer to remedy. Bonnie suffers from something worse than acne. The film doesn't reveal the origin of her scars, but schoolyard rumor has it that she's cover-ed with self-inflicted burns. In any case, her entire back is disfigured, and Mom takes her in for "experimental gene" therapy. This gruesome medical procedure requires that Bonnie be strapped to a gleaming machine and be stabbed repeatedly with needles -- an ordeal that makes a zit on prom night look like a walk in the park. Bonnie, of course, doesn't leave matters entirely to medical science, and the witching approach -- sipping wine and chanting in the woods -- looks downright wholesome by comparison.

That allegorical episode is the last simply satisfying moment. The other girls' problems are more complex, and just when the plot should grow likewise complex, the filmmakers abandon storytelling in favor of special effects and frightening creatures. (At least the special effects are good ones. Not since Suspiria has a film deployed so many squishy worms; and besides, we get snakes and a beachful of dead sharks.)

Such jazzy stuff doesn't quite atone for The Craft's failure to meaningfully address Sarah's and Nancy's problems. Sarah, the most powerful witch, is beset by moral qualms -- doubts about witchcraft that Nancy fails to appreciate.

While Sarah is whining "shouldn't we just stop?" Nancy is going nuts and levitating. Nancy, according to Rochelle, "just wants not to be white trash," and not being white trash seems to involve acquiring enough money so that her alcoholic mother can drink premium liquor. Nancy also tries to soothe her soul by sleeping with someone else's boyfriend, magically disguising herself as that someone else. But it's not clear what Nancy's ravings and pranks have to do with the problems faced by bright girls who are trailer trash.

Equally fuzzy is the nature of magic. The scriptwriters have our high school harpies practicing an ancient art culled from Wiccan books, Night Gallery episodes and Sabrina the Teenaged Witch comics.

But who cares? In Victorian-style high-top boots and black, black and more black, Nancy is the poster girl for Goth fashions and she gets to throw great fits; her cohorts' fashion moments and histrionics are of lower wattage, but still satisfying. That satisfaction lies at the heart of this movie. When you get right down to it, a lot of women need such outlets. Especially young women who can't organize their angst and frustration around a career.

The Craft offers other satisfactions, most of them in its nonstandard portrayal of teenage girls. Though our quartet have all the standard problems, they are not standard-issue movie heroines. Man-chasing is a small part of their lives, and (this is profoundly refreshing) at no point do any of the main characters say one word about a trendy issue. God bless them, they care not for the ozone, the homeless or human-rights violations.

The Craft isn't art, but as a cathartic fantasy, it's worth $6.50 in baby-sitting money.

The Craft.
Directed by Andrew Fleming. With Fairuza Balk, Neve Campbell, Rachel True and Tobin Tunney.

Rated R.
100 minutes.

 
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