TWILIGHT: BREAKING DAWN is the single most effective antidote to teen pregnancy I’ve ever seen. It’s cinematic birth control. Send your teenagers.  I saw it Monday afternoon in a theater with mostly single older ladies and one mother/daughter pair who apparently had not read the books; they looked shell-shocked as the credits rolled. The film is to be praised for succeeding on its own terms. It’s very faithful to the book (I’ve read them all) but if you have not read them, you would be downright bewildered.

The movie begins with an overhead shot of Taylor Lautner as Jacob– a werewolf in teen clothing– who tears out of his house in a rage, ripping his shirt off, and plunging into the forest transformed into a giant wolf!  WOW I’m thinking. They’re starting with Lautner stripping down to his bare chest :20 seconds in. Where can they go from here? Well, quite a ways. Soon there’s a vampire wedding– the one Jacob is upset about– because his beloved Bella is marrying his pale nemesis Edward Cullen, vampire god.  There’s  a glorious woodland  nuptial ceremony with rose petals, and the undead flying in from all over. It all builds to the climactic honeymoon on a remote island and a groom who literally tears the bed off its moorings in the heat of vampire passion! These scenes are tantalizingly erotic– nuzzling up without quite crossing the line; Bella and Edward’s connection remains  fundamentally romantic.

Then the fun is over. Bella becomes pregnant in what seems like a nanosecond, and no one knows exactly what she and Edward have cooked up — but it’s immediately clear there’s a problem.  This is soon corroborated by the maid who freaks out, calls Edward a demon, touches Bella’s stomach, and pronounces the word “death.”  What follows is the most grueling pregnancy this side of Rosemary’s baby. The baby is thriving while Bella is dying, literally sucking the life out of her. As her skeleton begins to poke through her greenish skin and hollowed out eyes, I felt sick.  Bella insists on carrying the baby to term, even as the life drains out of her, and the vampire/werewolf war heats up just outside her door. Pro-lifers and pro-choicers can both claim this moment.

Why is this movie so fascinating? None of it is particularly well-shot, or well-acted; some of the lines–my daughter (who just saw it) tells me– had the audience of mostly teens laughing. But the overall effect is gripping– it compels by virtue of its oddness. How will they dramatize these unusual events, I wondered. Nothing much actually happens– but the classic underpinnings of a coming of age tale: rebellion, romantic love, identity– have such exotic trappings, all dressed up as a vampire story;  and these young actors so perfectly embody their youthful angst, that I was held. Kristen Stewart’s innate introversion makes her line readings engagingly off-kilter. Robert Pattinson gives ardor and desperation a good name; he even looks better here–not quite so pasty, with subtly improved hair. Lautner is less convincing, but seethes with persuasive power. All of them are strangely beautiful.

The film ends with a moment we’ve been anxious about, and as we stare at the screen–it stares right back!  To be continued….