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Entries in Assassination of a High School President [2008] (1)

Sunday
Jan092011

Assassination of a High School President (2008)

A Major in Film Studies

Assassination of a High School President is a revelation, an almost perfectly crafted throwback not only to classic films noir, but also to 1980s high school movies—both comedic and dramatic.  Usually, when you hear a filmmaker use “throwback” to describe their movie, it means they’ve copied and pasted a lot of elements from whatever genre they’re appropriating into a screenplay that reflects what they recall of the genre, rather than infusing their work with its truths (see Hot Tub Time Machine or Hatchet 2; on second thought, don’t).  I haven’t heard director Brett Simon refer to his film in such a way, but the result is clear—intentional or not.

The movie stars Reece Daniel Thompson as Bobby Funke, a private school sophomore who’s apparently crafted an identity by watching Humphrey Bogart movies and Columbo re-runs.  He walks the halls in a gray trench coat, carrying a battered brown briefcase, narrating profiles of the cliques he passes by in a flat, hard-boiled voiceover.  We’ve seen this kind of act before, but what sets Bobby apart as a character is the fact that when the movie takes us out of his head, we see him as his classmates see him: not as a seen-it-all finder of facts, but as the awkward D&D nerd whose confidence is only as strong as the number of people mocking him or stabbing pencils through his steno pad.

Bobby dreams of following in the footsteps of his heroes, Woodward and Bernstein, and begs the editor of the school newspaper to give him a big story.  She turns him down, citing the fact that he’s never finished any assignment, and that he’s nowhere near ready to apply for the big Northwestern journalism internship that he sees as his ticket to the big time.

Everything changes when someone steals the SATs from a safe in the principal’s office. Bobby figures out that the culprit is class president Paul Moore (Patrick Taylor), and when the student is placed on permanent in-school suspension, Bobby gains hero status and a front-page story.  He also draws the attention of Francesca Fachini (Mischa Barton), Paul’s ex-girlfriend and stepsister of the new class president, Marlon Piazza (Luke Grimes).  Bobby’s editor even submits his story to the Northwestern program.  And that's where his luck starts to turn.

Bobby gets new information that Paul's previously established motive for the crime doesn’t hold water, which opens up a whole new investigation.  Now he must navigate the alien world of his tenuous, newfound popularity while dark forces conspire to keep him in the dark.  His snooping around produces answers to questions he’d never thought to pose and dead ends for what he thought were steps in the right direction.  If you’ve seen the films that Assassination of a High School President is based on, it’s no great feat to guess who the guilty players are, but the brilliance of this movie is the fact that Bobby encounters so many weird characters in so many bizarre situations that the point becomes the journey, not the destination (though the destination is pretty cool, too).

A good deal of what makes this movie so successful is the writing—and not just the dialogue.  Screenwriters Tim Calpin and Kevin Jakubowski have captured the essence of the high school experience in a wacky modern noir picture.  The characters may be stock (the detention hall burnouts, the hot popular girl, the student council preppies), but each has one or two tweaks to their story that makes them interesting.  Bruce Willis plays the crazy-strict, Desert-Storm-vet principal who sees gum-chewing as the ultimate sin; you’d expect him to have an end-of-the-film turnaround and either be fingered as a co-conspirator or a softy underneath—no such luck.  In a lesser movie, Bobby’s editor Clara (Melanie Diaz) would have a secret crush on him that he’d realize only after being dumped by the snooty bombshell; wrong again.  Even the popular kid's big parents-are-out-of-town party is different, taking place in a house that looks just like any other lame, suburban single-family home, instead of in a nineteen-room mansion with Lamborghinis lining the driveway.

It’s clear that Calpin and Jakubowski spent as much time making their characters interesting as they did in putting together a grand conspiracy.  Working with Simon, they also punch up the conventions of teen movies in ways I absolutely did not expect.  Some of this is visual playfulness; like the scene where Bobby follows a lead to a frat house.  The establishing shot has him walking through what looks like a weird minefield, and it takes a couple seconds to realize he’s passing through dozens of discarded beer kegs on the front lawn.  In another scene, he interrogates one of the stoner kids, who’s blowing up VHS tapes with firecrackers; the visual poetry of the wafting black ribbons and the fact that neither character acknowledges what’s going on adds to the movie’s overall “What the fuck?” uniqueness.

In other cases, the filmmakers take the oldest high school movie clichés—the driver’s test, in this example—and turn them into not only great comedic moments, but also ones that propel the story forward.  Bobby discovers the van of some student council members pulling up to numerous pharmacies along the same street as the one on which he’s taking his test.  Thinking quickly, he uses parallel parking and safety exercises as an excuse to tail his suspects.

Of course, all the clever writing and directing in the world won’t necessarily make a high school movie worth watching; without great acting, this could just be written off as a feature-length CW pilot.  Fortunately, Reece Thompson is wonderful as Bobby—nailing the snotty superiority of a teen who’s a super-cop in his own mind with the vulnerability of a social misfit who’s never been kissed by a girl.  His chemistry with Mischa Barton is undeniable and touching—which is weird considering the actress’s rather stiff performance when she’s not acting with Thompson.  The supporting cast is sufficiently believable as a gaggle of deranged, privileged high schoolers, walking the fine line of TV melodrama and a sort of homeroom Coen Brothers authenticity.  The only sore thumb in the bunch is Bruce Willis, who only has one or two scenes where he looked like he wasn’t doing the director a favor on his way to the Cop Out script read-through.

I’m not sure why this film didn’t make more of an impact on release.  Perhaps people saw the words “High School” in the title and wrote it off as brain-dead kids’ fare (the same thing happens when I try to convince people to watch Veronica Mars—the first season of which has a tighter, richer mystery than the last twenty-five thrillers I’ve seen).  I think the lazy Play-Doh factory of youth-targeted movies in the last decade has damaged the prospects of anyone who wants to do something interesting with the genre.  Even high school movies that receive acclaim as being edgy stuff that adults can enjoy are often just dishonest snark-fests that have all the imagination and plot complexity of a Zac Effron picture (I’m looking at you, Easy A and Juno).

Assassination of a High School President feels original, despite its obvious homages.  Like Pulp Fiction, it’s a collection of the creators’ favorite moviemaking staples told with a fresh voice.  This is less a throwback than a toss-forward—into an ideal world where genres are mined for lessons rather than kitsch.

Note:  If you want to do some of your own detective work, have a look at the supporting cast and see if you can name all the degrees of separation between the actors and other projects they've appeared in together.  Pop culture junkies may just shit themselves.