By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
The School for Good and Evil has got a problem with its curriculum. The school master is on a kind of permanent vacation, its teachers are uninspired, and its students are shallow and thoughtless (is that one thing?). The new movie on Netflix of the same title explores notions of good and evil through the tribulations of the School’s most recent recruits—Sophie (Sophia Anne Caruso) and Agatha (Sofia Wiley)—who force the School to look at its status quo.
The School was formed some hundreds or thousands of years ago by twin brothers Rafal (“Evil”) and Rhian (“Good”). After eons of keeping the balance between these two forces, Evil/Rafal gets antsy for more power (of course, as “evil” does) and overcomes Rhian in a duel. Kind of. All the viewer knows is that many years later, Rafal is gone, Rhian has lost his posh English accent and is played by Morpheus from “The Matrix,” and he is the pretty lazy head of the school.
Enter Sophie and Aggie, best friends who live in the Muggle, oh sorry, mundane town of Gavaldon. I don’t know if it’s important or not (I really don’t), but Sophie is white and considers herself “good” and Aggie is Black and everyone in the town calls her a witch. Umkay. Both girls would love to get out of this humdrum life, but it’s Sophie who has the chutzpah to put a letter under the wishing tree begging to be taken away by the School, whose recruiting method is basically kidnapping, by a nasty rotting roc, no matter which side you’re on. Kinda like getting “sorted,” you get flown to the school and dumped into your respective “side”—you are either a “Never” or an “Ever”—as in, “happily [insert] after”—and there are NO MISTAKES.
This is a movie full of twists on what it means to be “good” or “evil” or if there are even such things. Sophie and Aggie, who are put into the “wrong” schools, they think, turn everything the School is doing on its head and provide the catalyst for a series of changes and revelations. They break every rule from the get-go. They try to escape. They want to switch schools (well, Aggie actually doesn’t care; she’s just there because she loves Sophie and wants to help her friend). They mingle with each other, which is not allowed. Sophie pines for a prince (the son of King Arthur), which is not allowed, since she’s a “Never.” There are a lot of things that are not allowed and if you strike out—well, let’s just say that it’s not a very nice school, all in all.
I’m making fun by comparing this movie to Harry Potter, but in truth, “The School for Good and Evil” is its own entity and successfully so. It draws the viewer in very satisfactorily, creating a convincing, enchanting world.
Costume, set, and characters are all fully realized. Rather than balking at the cliches, which are done in jest, I loved the overly made up princesses in their curls and voluminous dresses, turning up their noses to the “Nevers” in their cobwebs and tattoos and black outfits. I loved the forced march through the forest of innocent-looking terrors like carnivorous pansies; and all the backstabbing leading up to who will take who to the Evers’ Ball.
I loved the teachers, too, of which there are three primary ones: the Nevers leader, Lesso (Charlize Theron), the Evers leader, Dovey (Kerry Washington), and the teacher of “beautification,” Anemone, played by Michelle Yeoh. All three are gorgeous and their mannerisms are just so. All three have depth that you know is there yet at the same time maintain a rigid front for the sake of the School’s rules. They are assisted by wolf-men on the Nevers’ side and gnomes and nasty fairies on the Evers’ side (this was a take on that scene in “Labyrinth” when what’s-her-face thought a fairy was adorable and got a bite on the finger for her trouble).
In order to prove herself “good,” Sophie has to get true love’s kiss, and things go badly from there. Aggie, in her effort to help, finds out all the School’s dark secrets, and eventually gets almost everyone to agree that “good” and “evil” might not be “black” and “white” (again, not sure if that implies something racial). The story is a conversation about “Nature” vs. “Nurture” as well. Will Sophie “turn” evil since she’s forced to stay in the evil school? Or was she evil all along, denying it even to herself? What does it mean to be good? Is it that you “always defend, never attack” like the teachers say? Or is it okay for good to attack sometimes? Why has evil not “won” in such a long time? (I don’t know what that means, but they’re pissed that it hasn’t happened since Rafal disappeared/died). The illumination provided at the end is intriguing.
“The School for Good and Evil” was a welcome portal into a magical alternate reality, and the most I have felt myself wrapped up into that kind of fairy tale world for a long, long time. It’s the sort of movie that will keep you wondering as you go about your day whether a (nasty) fairy is going to fly up from the bushes outside your house, or maybe a roc will come to take you away—but think twice before you put that letter under the wishing tree. It’s not what you think.
“The School for Good and Evil” can be streamed on Netflix.
Kai can be reached at email@example.com.