movie reviews

‘Lisa Frankenstein’ review: All praise for Liza Soberano

Ryan Oquiza

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‘Lisa Frankenstein’ review: All praise for Liza Soberano

STAR. Liza Soberano and Kathryn Newton in 'Lisa Frankenstein.'

Focus Features/Universal Pictures

‘Lisa Frankenstein’ cobbles together a patchwork of fleshed out characters, particularly Kathryn Newton and the scene-stealing Liza Soberano, but the story's stitches and bolts are still filled with clichés and faults

In Lisa Frankenstein, Lisa (Kathryn Newton) plays the outsider. She’s a teenage girl in the ‘80s who has to deal with the sudden death of her mother and being lumped into an entirely new family with stepsister Taffy (Liza Soberano) and stepmom Janet (Carla Gugino). Lisa moves silently on the fringes, yearning for a typical teenage experience free from the baggage of sorrow. 

Taffy emerges as a beacon of support for her. She’s a charismatic and well-liked cheerleader with a heart of gold. Her new mother? Not so much. A real pain in our protagonist’s life, and one-note in her “evilness,” but it does the trick — Lisa is isolated. Dating is also a problem for Lisa, as the men she has interactions with at school only see her as meat. But something changes that turns her from prey into predator.

Taking refuge in a desolate cemetery tucked away in the depths of a forest, she forms an unlikely bond with a sculpture resembling Cole Sprouse (who wouldn’t?). Before long, a bolt of lightning strikes the earth, breathing life into the once inanimate corpse, transforming it into living flesh. 

An alliance forms between Lisa and the decaying remains of a corpse, a relationship that becomes the unlikely force for transformation and discovery. This bond, macabre in its essence, morphs into a conduit through which both entities — living and dead — undergo turbulent shifts of personality. 

Writer Diablo Cody, of Juno and Jennifer’s Body fame, mixes a Frankensteinian story with a teenage story about feeling rebellious and wanting to lash out at the world for the grief and trauma launched onto them. Cody’s narrative is a subversion of the mythos, twisting the tale of hubris and horror into a story of female agency and recapturing control. 

The act of creation in Mary Shelley’s original story was not just about the scientific horror of bringing life to the dead but about reshaping and playing the dominion of God. And so Lisa starts her reign with The Creature. She gets herself a man; though inanimate, she’s able to mold him in her image, make him do what she wants, and can actually listen and not interrupt her for a change.

They learn more about each other, the crazy teenage desires of Lisa, the bond she shares with her ever-kind stepsister, the hatred she feels for her stepmom, and, as it turns out, The Creature plays the piano. Who’d have thought? Though Lisa Frankenstein cobbles together a patchwork of fleshed out characters, particularly Kathryn Newton and the scene-stealing Liza Soberano, the story’s stitches and bolts are still filled with clichés and faults.

Perhaps the first thing readers of Rappler have in mind is probably this: how was Liza Soberano in the film? I’m happy to report she was absolutely brilliant. Her comedic timing is golden and she has the gravity of a seasoned pro. She’s not like other “breakout” actresses coming from the Hollywood cog or independent scene; she has an arsenal of weapons with her facial expressions and line deliveries — natural, effortless, and strikingly funny. Her comedic talent is on full display, which makes me wonder why Philippine cinema never tapped into this facet of her talent more extensively? Did it never occur in writing? Or perhaps a rigid notion of who Liza is supposed to be onscreen? Who knows. 

‘Lisa Frankenstein’ review: All praise for Liza Soberano

Under the guidance of director Zelda Williams and the pen of Cody, Liza is given a role that not only breaks the mold but also showcases her vast range. A scene involving a call on the telephone is carried by her raising her emotions to the highest level, vacillating between annoying brat territory and sad wounded daughter, yet she consistently retains a charm and likability that is irrevocable.

As for the film itself, it finds its momentum primarily in the middle sections since it’s encumbered by a sluggish opening act and struggles in sticking the landing. Following Lisa’s transformation, both Newton and Sprouse are unleashed as they are given the latitude to showcase their most dynamic physical performances. Newton plays both the archetypal innocent ingénue and gothically tinged powerhouse really well as separate performances, but the script barely affords a sense of transition between the two personalities, marking the shift somewhat of a shock once it hits.

But when it does hit, and you get to settle down and buy into it; it’s a deluge of unfiltered, raw comedic anarchy at its most grotesquely delightful. Though these flashes of fun moments are fleeting, they’re like lightning to the chest. The “On The Wings of Love” needledrop serves as the film’s masterstroke, setting off a riot of belly laughs across my cinema. I’ve already sung my praise for Liza, but the way she says “I called a psychic, and she’s an actual Jamaican” is absolute perfection, no notes.

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When the film embraces its morbid weirdness, it’s in a league of its own. Yet, it’s plagued by a pervasive mediocrity. The scenes trap the camera in a state of static-ness, favoring more conventional setups rather than any playfulness. Intermittent forays into black and white sequences or animated interludes feel more like superficial embellishments than integral storytelling tools, often mistimed — arriving too soon or lagging behind — missing prime opportunities to inject a much-needed jolt of energy.

The film’s structure is uneven, and at times, seems like parts are missing. We never circle back to Lisa’s mom, nor do we ever get a better sense of who The Creature is. Lisa Frankenstein feels cut short by the end, just when it felt like the film was just about to start cooking. But what we do get out of this one is a potential star vehicle for Liza Soberano, a new subversive twist on the Frankenstein story, and the idea that maybe the man of your dreams is unfortunately, and quite hilariously, dead. – Rappler.com

Lisa Frankenstein’ is now showing in Philippine cinemas nationwide.

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Ryan Oquiza

Ryan Oquiza is a film critic for Rappler and has contributed articles to CNN Philippines Life, Washington City Paper, and PhilSTAR Life.