Look at that face. Does it terrify you, fill you with dread at what a short-tempered child with telekinetic powers might do to you, the room you’re in or the trees outside?
That’s one drawback to the new “Firestarter,” Blumhouse/Universal’s brisk, lean adaptation of the Stephen King novel that once gave us Drew Barrymore at her most terrifying. Young Ryan Kiera Armstrong doesn’t have the crazy eyes to pull off Charlie, the little girl with “a gift.”
But she’s adequate in the part. And as the movie built around her unfolds, you might think we’ve been treated to a Stephen King adaptation that overcomes the shortcomings of the much longer 1984 film. I got a conspiratorial and sinister “Scanners” vibe from the early scenes, which break from King’s novel as they show Charlie torching the solar system mobile dangling over her crib as a mewling infant.
Director Keith Thomas (“The Vigil”) and screenwriter Scott Teems wordlessly set up the menace, in a horrific montage of images, show Charlie’s parents (Zac Efron and Sydney Lemmon) as college kids, questioned as part of an experiment they signed up for. The unmistakable growl of Kurtwood Smith (“Robocop,” “That ’70s Show”) makes them uncomfortable off camera.
“Can you tell me if you’ve ever had what you’d call an authentic telekinetic experience?”
Whatever they came to that experiment with, what they left with was more focused and a relationship that produced Charlie, which keeps them cautious and on the lam.
But as she grows, she’s developing into a menace, without the maturity to exercise self-control.
“When you hurt people,” Dad says, “you don’t just hurt them, you hurt everyone around them. You don’t come back from that.”
All it takes is one bully at school, one incident and “our cover’s blown.” The “bad people” who’re looking for her and her parents close in, terrible things happen and father-and-daughter are on the road, heading for a showdown with whoever this Capt. Hollister (Gloria Reuben) in charge is, and whatever this Native American “agent” named Rainbird (Michael Greyeyes) might represent.
We glimpse the ways Dad hustles up cash via his own power-of-suggestion gift. He’s a “life coach” that can make you stop smoking by getting in your head.
And we meet a kind stranger (John Beasley) who might be instructive to Charlie in an “It takes a village sense.” Irv leaps to conclusions about the girl, calms himself and apologizes for his transgression. That’s how adults manage rage and roll back its consequences.
As much as I appreciate the amount of story packed into just a few scenes, with Charlie’s proper introduction, playing with Dad’s cigarette lighter in the dark giving Armstrong her most menacing moment, I have to say the movie feels malnourished and thin, lacking the extra scenes and grace notes that show Charlie learning or lashing out and the teaching and protecting that goes on after her mother dies.
It’s not that I remember that much about the original film — just Barrymore’s hair-blowing fire-exploding effect, something the new “Firestarter” improves on, but not by much. I don’t recall specific moments and establishing scenes that plainly were left out.
But the film we’re given lacks weight and rising suspense. The confrontation we’re headed for is inevitable, but the stakes feel lower thanks to the execution and the scanty scenes meant to fill in the father-daughter devotion and bond and establish Charlie’s growing power.
What also contributes to that “malnourished” take is the lesser known supporting cast. The original film had rising starlet Barrymore in the lead, with Heather Locklear, David Keith, Art Carney, Martin Sheen and George C. Scott surrounding her. To say the new “Firestarter” saved money on casting is an understatement.
That’s the final blow to a film that starts out with great promise, peaks about 30 minutes in, and then sputters and fizzles into something a lot more humdrum. What starts out feeling lean and stylishly stripped-down, with a faintly-creepy young lead, waters her down and winds up playing cut-rate, abridged and cheap.
Rating: R for violent content
Cast: Zaf Efron, Ryan Kiera Armstrong, Gloria Reuben, Michael Greyeyes, Sydney Lemmon and Kurtwood Smith
Credits: Directed by Keith Thomas, scripted by Scott Teems, based on the Stephen King novel. A Universal theatrical release, also on Peacock TV.
Running time: 1:34