- The Washington Times - Friday, November 21, 2008

“Twilight” isn’t quite “Transylvania 90210,” but if you inserted a few vampires into West Beverly High and moved the school up to the perpetually cloudy Washington countryside, it’d be close.

Kristen Stewart stars as Bella Swan, a girl who, as the movie opens, has just moved up from Phoenix to live with her father (Billy Burke). Charlie Swan is the town’s sheriff, and his relationship with Bella could best be described as distant but very affectionate; he clearly loves his daughter, but after so long apart is unsure how to relate to her. The same could be said of Bella. Very few films handle the awkwardness of divorce as honestly as “Twilight” does.

Another strength of this vampiric love story is Bella’s introduction to her new school. This isn’t your typical movie high school, one in which Bella must choose which clique she fits into. Although the Cullen kids (we’ll get to them in a minute) keep to themselves, everyone else seems to mix nicely; it’s a surprisingly honest portrayal of high school life, one that avoids the hoary cliches of jocks versus nerds versus stoners.

As Bella’s relationship with Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) blossoms, her interplay with the students (and her own father) offers regular splashes of humor and keeps things from getting too tense - a tension that would be entirely understandable since Edward (and his kin) see her as food.

The Cullens aren’t your standard vampires: They can walk around during the daytime; they don’t need to ask permission to enter a home; they don’t change into bats or other hideous creatures. Really, the only way to tell that they are in fact vampires is that they keep saying they are. (The unhealthily pale skin and the unearthly speed/strength are giveaways, too, I suppose.)

“Twilight” shares a weakness common to most introductory chapters in a multivolume tale. It takes so long to introduce the characters and create a convincing universe that by the time conflict arises - in this case, an evil vampire from a different clan who threatens to harm Bella in order to spark a confrontation with Edward - the action feels forced, unnecessary and rushed. The last half hour isn’t quite a mess, but it isn’t terribly interesting either.

The first 90 minutes, however, are surprisingly good. Miss Stewart is one of the finest young actresses working today, and she plays off of Mr. Pattinson’s brooding intensity with just the right touch of innocence and wariness. Look also for an outstanding turn by Peter Facinelli as the Cullen clan’s paterfamilias, Dr. Carlisle Cullen. It’s hard not to get sucked in - if one can get past the sometimes hokey, melodramatic teenage dialogue. (Sample laugher: “Your scent is like a drug to me. You’re like my own personal brand of heroin.”)

This is the first in a long string of “Twilight” movies (a series of sequels have already been greenlit), and intriguing questions remain. A stronger second act is certainly possible, considering this impressive setup.

★★½

TITLE: “Twilight”

RATING: PG-13 (some violence and a scene of sensuality)

CREDITS: Directed by Catherine Hardwicke

RUNNING TIME: 122 minutes

WEB SITE: http://www.twilightthemovie.com/

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS