THE NOTEBOOK Rejected titles: Drive, Blue Valentine, Half Nelson, Young Hercules.

NOT AT ALL a romantic film starring Ryan Gosling, The Notebook is something far uglier. Based on a novel by Hungarian author Agota Kristof, it's the tale of twin boys who, in the final days of WWII, decide to train themselves to withstand the cruelty of adults and the harshness of desperate times. Throughout, there's something vague being said about the moral tolls of war and genocide, but the moral is muddled—mostly, the film just ends up as an odd, engaging, somewhat questionable folk tale about creepy twins.

András and László Gyémánt play the nameless brothers (nobody, in fact, has a name here), who're sent to live in the Hungarian countryside with their alcoholic battleaxe of a grandmother. (Luckily, even without names, you can tell the twins apart, because one is a slightly worse actor.) Rather than an emotional development that begins with a breakdown of innocence progressing to learned strength, the twins have a disturbingly flat affect from the beginning. It's easier to believe the self-improvement project they embark upon—which involves starving themselves, beating each other, and ripping the feathers out of a live chicken—says less about their environment and more about their inherent creepy twin-ness.

It's a WWII movie, though, so of course they do encounter terrible people—most of whom primarily want to molest them. Tellingly, certain relationships improve as the boys toughen, such as with a Nazi officer who admires the rigor of their endeavors. And while the boys' conditioning begins as a survival tactic, they soon start meting out their own judgments, rewarding and punishing to psychopathic extremes.

It's an interesting story, but using WWII as an ostensible excuse to examine the worst in human nature feels exploitative. Considering that potential, actually, The Notebook keeps it relatively light—resulting in a twisted little tale of creepy people enabled to flourish.