Youth Not Wasted

'I Am Number Four' could be the next big young-adult film franchise

Suck it, Twilight.

There are good and bad films in the young-adult category, which, using a broad definition, includes that blood-sucking saga, along with Harry Potter and the junkyard of failures like Eragon, The Golden Compass and Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief.

I Am Number Four, based on the novel of the same name, enters the arena of young-adult movies at a perfect time: Potter is wrapping up for good this summer, and the Team Edward soap opera has only two more films left. So the door is as wide open as it has been in years to make a mark and find not only the audience not yet old enough to drive themselves to the multiplex, but also discerning adult crowds who can tell the qualitative differences between Prisoner of Azkaban and New Moon.

While it may not do the business of those two titans, I Am Number Four is a complete breath of fresh air, and the best new arrival for the teen crowd in a long, long time. Directed by D.J. Caruso (who made the splendid Disturbia and the forgettable Eagle Eye), Number Four combines a longstanding sci-fi framework with teen angst. That's nothing special. However, the script was handled by Marti Noxon of Mad Men fame, and more importantly, Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, who have experience with the same vibe thanks to a decade of work developing TV's Smallville.

There are certainly similarities: An alien with superpowers arrives from an extinct planet and is raised as a human, hiding his true nature from those around him. But Number Four (Alex Pettyfer) is on the run from a marauding band of ne'er-do-wells from his home planet. To keep things simple, we're told there were nine chosen ones who escaped the destroyed Lorien, numbered sequentially. That also keeps things simple for the evil Mogadorians, who are picking off the survivors in order.

When Number Three winds up deader than disco, Number Four and his appointed protector, Henri (Timothy Olyphant), leave sunny Florida for Paradise, Ohio. It's a fictional small town with an ironic name. The boy is enrolled in the local high school as John Smith, an equally ironic name, because he is anything but run-of-the-mill.

John meets a girl (Dianna Agron from Glee) and makes a geeky friend (Callan McAuliffe). He also finds himself running afoul of his new crush's ex-boyfriend, the high school quarterback (Jake Abel). Again, it's all pretty typical stuff on the surface.

The science fiction is mild; there's a lot more fiction than science, obviously, but just as it is with Harry Potter's wizardry, that stuff is mere window dressing. Presumably, Number Four's powers and the reliance of the story upon them will increase in future chapters, should they come to pass. This is about the right amount for the introduction, although the film could use a little more action.

What sets I Am Number Four apart from all the misfires aimed at teens in the past decade or so is the slow, sure development of the principal characters and the earnestness of the actors; filmmakers didn't just throw visual effects onscreen and hope that a parade of cash would follow. The way Pettyfer and Agron engage each other resembles the kind of young love that may or may not be the real thing, but nevertheless moves all the mountains. Pettyfer's exchanges with Olyphant, who is really well-cast, are like an aging rider trying to break a particularly ornery horse, and they provide a nice balance to the obligatory romance.

Then there is Teresa Palmer. An Australian actress whose signature role to this point might have come in limited duty opposite Adam Sandler in Bedtime Stories, Palmer is a mysterious presence for the first 90 minutes. Hero or villain? It's kind of unclear. But it is obvious that she's a force to be reckoned with. After the film's final battle, it appears that Palmer could have a future kicking ass in the movies. She showcases a real conviction and a kind of pull-no-punches action repertoire usually reserved for Angelina Jolie, who is without question the best action heroine going. Maybe it's all in the editing, but when Palmer gets down to business, things really pick up.

The idea is, of course, that this film will launch several more. There will be six novels to draw from by the time it's all said and done. Of course, the majority of films trying this approach that are not named Potter or Twilight have fared poorly with audiences. Number Four aims for a crowd a little bit older than the others and should win over some sci-fi devotees who wouldn't normally go for something about teenagers. It's not a perfect movie by any stretch of the imagination, but it is fun and it maximizes all of its potential.

And there's not a bare-chested vampire or wereboy in sight.

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