By Mary Sollosi
October 28, 2020 at 12:23 AM EDT
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Legacy has become cheap. In this oft-lamented era of the remake/sequel/reboot, studios are always trying (usually stumbling) to give a contemporary update but retain the spirit of some dated thing, performing a kind of reverence for its legacy — however nonsensical that word might sound in the context of lowbrow old properties.

So what is the legacy of The Craft? Andrew Fleming’s 1996 supernatural horror flick, in which a coven of teenage witches tests the limits of their powers, to disturbing results, was a surprise hit 24 years ago and has been elevated to cult classic status since then. Such a strange, spiky entry in the teen genre — always remembered by its iconic line “we are the weirdos, mister” — demanded a 2020 sequel/reboot, naturally. The Craft: Legacy comes courtesy of Blumhouse, from writer-director Zoe Lister-Jones (Band Aid), and for all its good intentions, the glossy production comes off like a feature-length episode of a network teen drama; nary a frame hints at the arresting energy of the edgy sleepover staple.

Cailee Spaeny plays Lily, a new girl who arrives in an unnamed town — evidently not L.A., like the original, based on the autumn foliage — with her rather alarmingly flaky mother Helen (Michelle Monaghan). They're moving in with Helen’s new boyfriend Adam (David Duchovny), who has three biblically named teenage sons and a career as a self-help guru with the explicit mission to preserve toxic masculinity at all costs. I wonder who the villain will be?

Lily’s mother always tells her that “your difference is your power,” which is how we know Lily is a misfit because nothing else about her suggests as much. On her first day at school, three other alleged outcasts who also happen to be witches (Lovie Simone, Gideon Adlon, and Zoey Luna) are kind to her after a humiliating accident, and soon realize that she has the supernatural gift to be their coven’s “fourth,” which would strengthen their magic by having one witch to embody each element and each cardinal direction.

It’s great to see a mainstream teen movie with a diverse quartet of leads, and where the characters’ diversity does not define their identities (regrettably, the script does little to define any of them either, but it’s equal-opportunity blandness, which is good, I guess). Making a teen movie inclusive does not mean that every character who is not white or cis needs to provide us with a clumsily written teachable moment, however, and yet here we are, sitting through woke-lecturing dialogue that even the charismatic cast can’t disguise as authentic teenage conversation.

Wokeness is not a bad thing. But a film can demonstrate conscious, active empathy without making it a lesson — or, in fact, making it the plot, which this film does when the coven performs a spell to make a bully into his best self, which turns out to be someone who spends parties quoting Janet Mock articles and sharing his “super eclectic playlist.” The coven seeks to use magic to promote kindness and build the community, which is great and all, but zero percent of why anybody wants to watch a movie about teen witches. (I found myself debating whether it panders more shamelessly to Gen Z social consciousness or Gen X devotion to the original; the last 15 minutes, in which The Craft Easter eggs turn into something like an Easter parade, confirm that the older crowd wins out.)

That dirty word, Legacy, is right there in the title, so there’s no separating this movie from its predecessor. Invoking that nostalgia will certainly draw some viewers, but the link mostly hurts the new film, considering how mild it is in comparison to its inspiration. The 1996 movie was rated R — unnecessarily, sure, but still, the fact that it could spook the MPAA that bad speaks to how transgressive it felt. The Craft was not wholesome. It did not feel safe. Which is why it resonated so deeply: Teens aren’t always wholesome! High school is often not a safe space! (Activists though they might be, Gen Z is not somehow exempt from this; they’re watching Euphoria.)

Fleming’s Craft saw four young women growing into their own power, learning to harness it, and scaring themselves and each other with what they were capable of. When Legacy shies away from letting its heroines make any real mistakes, it loses the thing that pierces: they need to test their boundaries a little too far, a little too selfishly, for the supernatural coming-of-age to feel meaningful. Instead, the only true threat comes from outside — not just their coven, but their enlightened generation — and the film preaches, perhaps too heavily, the power of sisterhood and community above all else.

But what do those things mean when the players haven’t grown individually too? By the end of Legacy, each of the witches has become less interesting and less distinct. You’ll find yourself asking, where are the weirdos, Lister-Jones? I'm sorry to tell you: They got left in the ‘90s. C–

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