Tag Archives: high school

Blame

A trio of high school girls. Already it sounds like trouble, doesn’t it?

Bad girl Melissa (Nadia Alexander) arrives to disrupt the cozy duo of Ellie and Sophie. Melissa’s influence is immediate on Sophie – well, on both, since Ellie is quick to distance herself from Melissa’s cruelty. A fourth student’s arrival makes an even bigger stir. After a 6 month absence (psych ward stay, it’s rumoured), Abigail (Quinn Shephard) walks the halls, eyes downcast. Melissa senses prey, and the bullying is brutal and relentless. Slut or psycho, there’s no consensus, so both slurs are hurled her way on a regular basis.

Their drama class is studying The Crucible thanks to a new substitute teacher, Mr. Woods (Chris Messina). The parallels between the play and the plot of the film are hard to miss MV5BZjZiMjdiZGEtNTA5NS00NDBhLTlkZGEtMWY4ZGQ0NzEyNDNlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTYyMDk1MjU@._V1_SY1000_SX1500_AL_with the ostracizing and vilification of Abigail. Mr. Woods sees a lot of quiet talent in Abigail, and his singling her out for praise and attention only drives Melissa to more cruelty. But it’s ice to see Abigail being appreciated by someone, even if it’s her teacher. Until it’s her teacher’s, um, lips doing the appreciating, and that becomes problematic. Mostly for Melissa, oddly, who is insane with jealousy. To be clear, Melissa has every guy in school running after her, and she doesn’t want Mr. Woods. She just doesn’t want Abigail to have anything except Melissa-inflicted misery. And maybe she can’t stand to have anyone choose someone besides her. You’d have to invent a word above self-involved for the likes of Melissa.

Nadia Alexander is all kinds of hateful in this part. Melissa is perhaps not without her motivations, but Alexander is unwavering in her snarl and sadism. Quinn Shephard is also very confident and comfortable in Abigail’s skin, as she should be as she directs herself in a role she co-wrote.

Blame uses familiar high school movie tropes to construct a larger framework. Shephard uses the imagery and inspiration from The Crucible to build Blame to a heightened emotional intensity. We may not always know what it is, but it’s clear that danger lurks ahead. Abigail begins to identify more and more with her fictional counterpart, and it’s fascinating to watch her wardrobe transform as a result, her clothes reflecting both the puritanical and the temptress, and then to see the other girls’ outfits start to compete, heels getting higher, hemlines getting shorter. Only Ellie serves as a link to the audience and our growing discomfort. Chris Messina does an exceptional job with a tricky character. Mr. Woods clearly makes some bad decisions but Messina doesn’t brand him a predator. His girlfriend thinks he’s a loser so of course he puffs up under Abigail’s admiration and devotion. It makes him weak. And the girls, they perform, and I don’t just mean the Arthur Miller. I mean their sexuality is performative. Largely inexperienced, they project sophistication beyond their means, competing with one another for things they don’t fully understand yet, and may not even want. Placing The Crucible within hallowed high school halls makes it clear it belonged there all along.

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Candy Jar

Lona and Bennett have been rivals their entire high school careers. In their senior year, with Lona (Sami Gayle) applying to Harvard and Bennett (Jacob Latimore) gunning for Yale, the pressure on them to do well is enormous, and they are dismayed to learn that as debate co-champions and debate co-presidents, debate isn’t going to give either of them the edge over the other. And while their ambitions drive them on, their respective mothers may hold them back. His (Uzo Adubo) is an affluent, accomplished state senator, and hers (Christina Hendricks) is a single mother with three jobs and a chip on her shoulder. And of course they too were once high school rivals.

I wondered if Candy Jar was going to do for debate what Pitch Perfect did for glee club: it’s not. First of all, debate club sucks. Clearly things have changed since I was in high Candy-Jarschool. Apparently debate is now mostly loud, fast shouting. Like auctioneer fast. The arguments are spit out in such a high-speed string that they are not even distinguishable. So it’s really not all that fun to watch. As in, not remotely fun, so I wonder if the director just invented the fast pace in order to basically fast forward the most boring parts of his movie. Which is not exactly a vote of confidence, is it?

Meanwhile, their guidance counselor (Helen Hunt) is more concerned about them getting dates and going to school dances and other borderline creepy things than about their academic futures. Basically, these two are co-champions on paper but co-losers in life.

The cast is pretty solid and I’m particularly happy to see Uzo Adubo go from Crazy Eyes to State Senator. Girl is versatile! And while the kids have important lessons to learn about disappointment and loss and perspective (and perhaps their parents even more so), it feels like director Ben Shelton lacks a specific vision. If you’re going to contribute to the vast oeuvre of high school movies, maybe try not to suck so much. Well, suck is a harsh word. Bland is probably more accurate, but nearly as damning, I think.

Also, for the record, Sean suffered a personal disappointment when he discovered the movie to be titled Candy Jar and not Cookie Jar. So we’re holding that against it too.

The Outcasts

Jodi and Mindy are a couple of … nerds? geeks? kids who just don’t fit in? But they do have each other, which is not quite enough when their high school’s resident Mean Girl pulls a nasty prank. They vow to get even, and their brilliant plan involves uniting all the school’s Great Unwashed – every band geek, gamer, stoner, and whoever else resides on the outskirts of the Popular Clique. The popular gang only exists because the rest of the outsiders are fractured. Put them all on the same team and suddenly they’re the dominant group. Whoa, reversal! Will high school ever be the same again?

5x3tw-Y6XMQG2KXH5-Full-Image_GalleryBackground-en-US-1490285390734._RI_SX940_Jodi (Victoria Justice) and Mindy (Eden Sher) are our bike-helmet wearing heroes, but that doesn’t mean we know much about them. Even in a movie that champions the outcasts, we still relegate them to the thing that labels them: Mindy is the supersmart, MIT-bound nerd, Jodi is the aimless dreamer, there’s the guy who wears a cape to school, the guy who exists just to dance, the girl who’s obsessed with Paris, the girl scout…lots and lots of one dimensions.

The Outcasts can best be described as “harmless” – it adds nothing to the high school movie genre and is light on its message of inclusivity. The only mild amusement I derived from the movie was in reading the slogans on everyone’s tshirts. I was forgetting it before it was even done, and that’s probably for the best.

Brick

Back in December, I reviewed Mysterious Skin, Looper, and Sin City: A Dame to Kill For and brick postermade no secret of my Joseph Gordon-Levitt bias. It all started with Brick. I exited the theater when I first saw it back in 2006 certain that this was an actor to watch out for and refusing to listen to my friend’s allegations that this was in fact the same kid from 3rd Rock from the Sun.

Watching it again nearly a decade later, Brick feels a bit like a feature length high school video project- complete with an extremely low budget and a high school serving as the unlikely setting for a Maltese Falcon-style detective story. JGL plays a loner named Brendan who must navigate the seedy underworld of his school to solve his ex-girlfriend’s murder. The dialogue, music, and twists seem to come from a bizarre 40s noir. Instead of a meddling cop, we get a nagging vice-principal.

Just like in the Leonardo DiCaprio version of Romeo and Juliet, first time writer-director Rian Johnson (who JGL later worked with again on Looper) relies on the anachronisms in the discourse to make an old story feel new. This gives him an excuse to tell a pretty straightforward detective story without it feeling like just another detective story. I’ll admit his style takes some getting used to and I was completely thrown off at first back in 2006. But once you get the hang of it, it’s easy to get caught up in Johnson’s surreal picture of a modern high school. Sure, they don’t talk like real teenagers but they never do in the movies anyway. At least Brick is fun to listen to.

brick

Brick runs just a little bit longer than the novelty of Johnson’s gimmick and there are a couple of times too many where he uses self-parody as a bit of a crutch. The film really works best when it’s reminding us that the darkest of secrets can be hidden within the walls of our publc schools. You’ll either love the film’s style or you’ll hate it but JGL sold it for me. He always strikes just the right note and, like the movie itself, has one foot in the past and the other in the present. He has the look of a modern troubled teenager with the soul of Sam Spade. Nearly a decade later, I am still always looking forward to his next project.