After the popular show 13 Reasons Why debuted on Netflix, a slew of films have tried to copy its success as a dark young-adult-oriented story about the investigation of a teenager’s tragic death. The latest of these is Saving Zoë, directed by Jeffrey G. Hunt. An adaptation of the novel of the same name by Alyson Noel, it is likely that this story worked better on the page than as an hour-and-a-half-long movie.
One of the most frustrating things about films aimed primarily at young adults is that their stories are so needlessly convoluted. The end of the story arc is painfully obvious from the very beginning, so why do writers make the audience jump through so many hoops to get there? Eventually all of the twists and red herrings that the movie tries to throw at you become exhausting. By the end of the film, you will be left wishing that it had been shorter and simpler even though it is already pretty short.
The main reason why this film is such a disappointment is that it shows so much potential. There are multiple subplots, like the struggles of the protagonist and her family with depression and anxiety after the eponymous character’s murder, that are far more interesting and complex than the mystery that serves as the main plot. Had the movie taken more time to flesh out these storylines more completely, it would have been better for it.
However, perhaps the most damning issue with this film is that it feels woefully misguided. The movie cannot seem to settle on a tone, so we are given a mix of coming-of-age comedy, high school melodrama, and moody teen mystery. The transitions between these segments are often jarring and noticeable. The filmmakers needed to streamline the story and make it feel darker as a whole, because as is, the film feels significantly too light for the subject matter.
The movie is also troubling in its depiction of sexuality. There are a few scenes in the film which are absolutely terrible, shot in a way that seems to fetishize rape, and it is made even worse by the fact that the victim in these scenes is a minor. It is obvious that the script wants you to be horrified by what you are seeing, but these scenes were not done well, and as a result, you are shocked in a bad way.
Because of these reasons, the film is largely unable to achieve the level of emotional resonance which it hopes to hit. The issue is not with the characters — they are compelling enough, if rather one-dimensional — it is with the movie’s insensitivity towards its subject matter. You simply can’t connect to the characters on an emotional level when you being distracted by overwhelming sexuality and a poorly-fit tone.
The lead actress, Laura Marano, has a few scenes in which her charisma is able to come through, but for most of the film, her delivery is far too wooden. Granted, this may result less from the actress herself and more from the stiff and emotionless dialogue, but it just felt like Marano wasn’t all there. The supporting cast, including an inexplicable dramatic bit part from Ken Jeong, all feel like they are phoning it in.
That said, you can’t fault Hunt for lack of ambition. He tries to make the movie feel slick and stylized. In fact, he tries so hard that the film ultimately feels like it is trying too hard to be cool. The soundtrack, cinematography, and production design all seem like Hunt is trying to make the movie relevant for younger generations even though this isn’t really necessary.
Saving Zoë is one of those films that feels so ill-conceived and wrong that you can’t help but wonder who thought it a good idea to make it in the first place. Although you can see brief bits of potential, the script is so fundamentally flawed that it likely never could have been successful.
Saving Zoë is now in theaters and on VOD.