Jordan Scott’s directorial debut feature, Cracks, aims for a quality that’s simultaneously fleeting and mournful—a reminiscence of a special time, and a document of how it was spoiled. Based on the Sheila Kohler novel of the same name (adapted by Scott with screenwriters Ben Court and Caroline Ip), Cracks is set in a rural English girls’ school in the mid-’30s, where the most popular students compete on the diving team, under the tutelage of charismatic teacher Eva Green. By day, the girls learn the fine arts of letter-writing and flower-arranging, and read poets who warn against excessive ambition. Then after class, they gather around Green, who feeds them treats, exposes them to modern trends in fashion and literature, tells them stories about her world travels, and encourages them to push toward excellence. The problem? Green may be crazy.
For much of Cracks’ first two-thirds, Scott and company avoid the obvious melodramatic beats and just let the story unfold, even as the narrative shifts its attention from character to character (much like the book, which was written in first-person plural). The movie starts out being about Juno Temple, the team captain, who enforces the rules strictly because they assure that she remains atop the social pyramid. Then Cracks becomes about Maria Valverde, a new student from Spain, who questions the order of things—which includes questioning Green. Throughout, the story keeps weaving back to Green, who takes a special interest in her best girls. Is it because she wants to live vicariously through their success, recalling her own days as a student at the school? Or is she up to something more nefarious?
Cracks stumbles down the stretch, when the melodrama finally washes in and the behavior becomes more extreme. It’s a shame the story takes a lurid turn, because it doesn’t need to. Green plays such a powerful character, influencing her girls with her full, adult sensuality, yet falling to pieces whenever she has to leave school grounds. And an insular boarding school is such an inherently vivid location—a world that shrewd young people can learn to master, though they gain nothing useful from the skill.