“Is it the whole dying-girl thing, or do you have something original planned?” When the leukemia-afflicted protag of “Now Is Good” foxes a radio interviewer with this question, she could be asking the same thing of the filmmakers. Writer-helmer Ol Parker’s warmhearted, well-acted sophomore feature delivers a bit of both, spiking the Nicholas Sparks-style teen “Love Story” plot with refreshing flashes of sex, drugs and Ellie Goulding songs. Young auds should respond sympathetically when the pic bows in Blighty, with the pretty pairing of a British-accented Dakota Fanning and rising star Jeremy Irvine lending moderate international appeal.
Adapted by Parker (who scripted oldster smash “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”) from Jenny Downham’s acclaimed young-adult novel “Before I Die,” the film visits markedly similar territory to last year’s “Restless,” a study of star-crossed American teens in Portland, Ore. But “Now Is Good” has fewer artistic pretensions than that Gus Van Sant film, and feels a good deal more authentically youthful.
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Rather than burdening his central couple with hipster affectations — which wouldn’t be difficult, given that the pic is set in the fashionable coastal English city of Brighton — Parker lets them be cluelessly juvenile and maddeningly precocious by turns. A key indicator of how the terminally ill Tessa (Fanning) embraces the adulthood she’ll never have is the bucket list she keeps: Right below the obligatory teenage wish for a tattoo is a more curious resolution to “hit a racist.”
Losing her virginity, however, is Tessa’s top priority. A tone-setting pre-credits sequence finds her, with racy best friend Zoey (Kaya Scodelario from “Wuthering Heights”), fumblingly attempting to do just that with two bristle-headed local boys. A worthier suitor arrives in the apple-cheeked form of new neighbor Adam (Irvine), who recently lost his own father to cancer. Saintly, intelligent and built like an Abercrombie & Fitch model, Adam is nonetheless warily regarded by Tessa’s divorced, overprotective dad (Paddy Considine), and the two men’s struggle for possession of the dying girl’s heart forms the story’s key conflict. Less of an obstacle is Tessa’s flaky, bottle-blonde mom (Olivia Williams, delightful as ever), who keenly diagnoses Adam as “a hot-buttered biscuit.”
Parker handles the grim reality of Tessa’s disease with healthy candor — the possibility of recovery is off the table — so it’s disconcerting when the film launches into high-key romanticism in the latter stretches. A scene in which the young couple takes a sunset motorcycle ride through the country, wild horses galloping alongside them, dips into florid kitsch that doesn’t seem consistent with Tessa’s own imagination; “War Horse” star Irvine, meanwhile, needs no further equine associations.
It’s left to the strong cast to keep things credible. Irvine is particularly appealing, bringing convincingly awkward sensitivity and gentle goofiness to a role that could play merely to his dreamboat strengths. He’s a surprisingly fair foil for Considine, brusque and finally moving as the father who can’t accept what his daughter already has done. Only Fanning, typically attentive to detail and making a good stab at the accent, feels a little studied; if not for concerns of marquee appeal, producers might have been better off promoting the frisky, feline-eyed Scodelario.
Production values are stronger and occasionally more inventive than the material demands, with Erik Alexander Wilson’s bright, carefully framed lensing and Dustin O’Halloran’s lightly electro-dusted score both fresh assets.