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March 27, 2012

Girl on fire

Lawrence carries 'Hunger Games' to record box office

‘The Hunger Games’

Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson and Elizabeth Banks. Directed by Gary Ross. Rated PG-13, 2:22. LEO Report Card: A-

“The Hunger Games” $155 million weekend box office trounced expectations — Lionsgate initially projected about $100 million in domestic ticket sales — and set a few records while doing so. The film had the third-strongest opening of all time, the biggest domestic, springtime weekend ever, and the best three-day numbers for a non-sequel. Only “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II” and “The Dark Knight” had better opening weekends.

Directed by Gary Ross (“Seabiscuit,” “Pleasantville”) and driven by Louisville’s rising star, Jennifer Lawrence, as Katniss Everdeen, “The Hunger Games” also managed to surpass each of the “Twilight” films’ opening weekends. Likenesses between these two franchises have been drawn reflexively by critics, but the mood amongst the predominantly young, female crowd at a sold-out screening Saturday seemed to reflect resentment for this comparison when a string of boos rang out during the trailer for “Twilight: Breaking Dawn, Part II.”

Far be it from me to decode the whims of teenage girls, but I consider myself in accord with my multiplex-mates from Saturday: “The Hunger Games” should be set apart from “Twilight” and “Potter.” For starters, the Oscar-nominated Lawrence has distinguished herself from likeable-enough peers like Kristen Stewart, and certainly has put herself in a different stratosphere from those misbehaving ingénues of recent years who create more gossip column fodder than memorable performances.

It was hard not to make this observation earlier this month, when Lawrence took a break from promoting “The Hunger Games” to support a nearby youth film festival at the Bellewood Home for Children. The day my story ran on this, the New York Post published an account about how paparazzi confused the 25-year-old Lindsey Lohan with 66-year-old Debbie Harry. The genetic lottery that is talent and beauty only goes so far and can easily be blown, as we can see from watching the career paths of these two actresses so far. In Lawrence, a spotless off-screen life and intelligent role selection, like the poised, family-first characters she plays in “Winter’s Bone” and “The Hunger Games,” seems to be the norm.

For me, Lawrence’s current film evokes something closer to “Star Wars” for girls than “Twilight,” despite being fairly gender-neutral. There is a noble, Luke Skywalker quality to Katniss that might explain the number of guardians who arrived at this PG-13 affair on Saturday with gaggles of excited preteens in tow. Although there is a definite implication of violence and quick glimpses of savagery, what probably stands out more for these parents is the role model material of the film’s lead actress. And, although “The Hunger Games” may not be a perfect thriller for grown-up audiences (the sacrifices made to achieve the PG-13 rating do make the experience less frightening), most will be compelled to see where Susan Collins’ adapted trilogy goes from here.