Pretty Boys Gone Wild, Part 1: Zac Efron in The Paperboy

The tweens' dreamboat gets down and dirty in this lurid, racially charged melodrama

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Zac Efron and Robert Pattinson made their names as the pretty-boy stars of franchises for tween and teen girls: Efron as the dancing prom king in the Disney Channel’s High School Musical series, Pattinson as Edward the sensitive vampire in The Twilight Saga. Now working to establish their credibility as serious actors, they’ve come to Cannes in two challenging melodramas. Our reviews follow.

Admirers of The Paperboy, director Lee Daniels’ first film since his Oscar-nominated Precious: From the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire, can come out of the closet now. At the morning screening for critics, the film was greeted with a chorus of boos. Early reviews were nearly rhapsodic in their derision. “Transcendentally awful!” —Robbie Collin, The Guardian. “Sloppy, inept and – sorry – appalling!” —Jeffrey Wells, Hollywood Elsewhere. “An insipid waste of time and money for the audience and for everyone who made it!” —James Rocchi, The Playlist. For their proof of the movie’s wretched excess, critics sited the scene in which Zac Efron, stung by a jellyfish, gets his wounds urinated on by a squatting Nicole Kidman, who says, “If anyone’s gonna piss on him it’s gonna be me.”

(READ: Richard Corliss on the Zac Efron mystique, c. 2009)

Later in the day, though, The Paperboy found some sporadic love. The Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy, one the most influential American reviewers in Cannes, praised the film as “a tasty wallow in sordid goings-on.” Guy Lodge of In Contention called it “kinkily demented,” and added: “If The Paperboy had Werner Herzog’s name on the credits — and it totally could — there’d be a lot more affection for it out there.”

To this distinguished minority I add my praise. In a festival showcasing too many films of timid narrative aspirations and tepid cinematic means, The Paperboy actually has a pulse; the film revels in the lure of the lurid. This adaptation of Pete Dexter’s 1995 novel barges into that mythical land, the American South, takes root in the sins of the flesh and the soul, and digs deep, down and dirty.

Although the territory has been well plowed before, by Tennessee Williams and Elia Kazan in the 1956 Baby Doll and in the deliciously decadent Wild Things in 1998, Daniels cultivates it with a fresh African-American perspective on a patch of rural Florida at the end of the ’60s. He has changed the race of some of Dexter’s characters from white to black, but the mood is starkly different from his previous film. Precious, a tale of social rehabilitation, showed a teenage girl lifted from Harlem poverty and family degradation by a helpful teacher. In The Paperboy, a naïve young middle-class man and his brother are dragged down toward tragedy by several species of white trash.

(READ: Mary Corliss on Precious at Cannes 2009)

Jack James (Efron), the younger son of the local newspaper publisher (Scott Glenn) in Moat County, is charming and callow, overshadowed by the reputation of his brother Ward (Matthew McConaughey), who’s become a big-city journalist. Ward is back in Moat, with his black-reporter friend Yardley (David Oyelowo), to investigate the murder trial of a local sheriff. Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack), the backwoods layabout who is on Death Row for the crime, had an air tight alibi that was not allowed into evidence. Now Charlotte Bless (Kidman), a jailbird Jenny who courted Hillary while he was in prison, says she has two boxes of letters that will afford the convict a new trial.

People can be attracted to celebrity or to notoriety, to those soaring above them and those swimming below. As Charlotte warmed to the plight and the danger of a Death Row inmate, so the naïve Jack falls for the pretty, trashy Charlotte. The family maid (Macy Gray) says that Charlotte was for Jack “a high-school sweetheart, his mama and a Barbie [doll] all in one.” Jack wants to bite into forbidden fruit; and Charlotte, for whom sex is as natural as heavy breathing, doesn’t mind pleasing an inexperienced young man.

(READ: Richard Corliss on Nicole Kidman in Rabbit Hole)

Assembling this impressive cast, Daniels puts them through a boot camp of intense emotions and sensational indignities. All the actors rise or bend to the challenge, giving juicy performances and seemingly having a fine old time. McConaughey brings a watchful intelligence to the role of Ward, a man of secrets and tragedy. And Efron edges from feckless boy-man, flirting in his underpants with the black maid, to emerge with the hard-won maturity of the disenchanted.

The revelation, however, is Kidman’s performance. Renouncing the goddess image she has so frequently assumed, her Charlotte is a ripe, feral creature, working all her sexual wiles just for exercise. With a risky mixture of precision and abandon, Kidman splendidly creates a vision of Southern womanhood at its most toxic. It won’t happen, but she deserves the Best Actress prize at this year’s Cannes.