Twin piano prodigies get a little too competitive in NOCTURNE, the latest not-quite-there installment from Amazon’s “Welcome To The Blumhouse” anthology of feature-length movies that really probably should have been hour-long shows. Sydney Sweeney stars as Juliet, the meek one of the pair, a few minutes younger and slightly plainer than her more dazzlingly accomplished sibling Vivian (Madison Iseman). Big sis is headed to Julliard in the fall while Juliet didn’t get in and arrogantly didn’t apply anywhere else. But the stew of sibling rivalry at their fancy-schmancy performing arts school doesn’t start seriously stirring until a star violinist finishes practice one afternoon and promptly hurls herself from a balcony.
Juliet clumsily comes into possession of the dead girl’s notebook, which alternates sheet music with occult-ish drawings that look like heavy metal album covers from the 1980s. Suddenly, our shrinking violet’s playing improves enormously, and her attitude changes as well. Gentle Juliet is now sassing back at her washed-up, has-been teacher (John Rothman) about his drinking, putting the moves on her sister’s boyfriend and attempting to steal the spotlight from Vivian by swiping her audition piece. The elder sibling retaliates by leaving a clump of used tampons in Juliet’s mailbox, an act to which others in the film respond with a nonchalance I felt stretched credulity somewhat.
Like last week’s “Black Box,” the story is both underdeveloped and stretched for time, leaving it feeling simultaneously padded and thin. No effort is made to establish the existing dynamic between these sisters at the outset, so the only way we can tell that Juliet’s personality is changing is because other people in the movie keep saying, “This isn’t like you.” Sweeney shrewdly underplays a lot of the character’s Carrie White flourishes, but she’s done no favors by nearly every other scene ending with Juliet passing out. This chick faints more often than the over-corseted Victorians who had couches built for it.
Writer-director Quirke clearly saw “Black Swan” and liked it an awful lot, but her screenplay’s most interesting elements are off to the side of the supernatural mumbo-jumbo. Classical music is an extremely expensive and demanding form for which audiences are indeed shrinking, and the best scene finds the twins’ horrid mother (Julie Benz) grilling an instructor about the viability of continuing careers in the performing arts. In a field with room for so few, what if you’ve got all the passion in the world but not enough talent?
“Nocturne” never fully marries that tantalizing idea to Juliet’s dilemma, instead doubling down on all sorts of backwards-written prophecy nonsense and a sinister yellow orb that’s a relief from the movie’s milky, washed-out videography. (I’m starting to think that filmmakers should have to apply for a license before being allowed to shoot in Cinemascope. Maybe require them to turn in two or three storyboards showing how they plan to utilize the widescreen frame for something more than just TV that’s squinting.) The final five minutes of this drab, plodding movie finally go buckwild with a flurry of expressionistic effects but by then it’s too late. For poor Juliet and the audience.•••
Over the past two decades, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.