The high school movie. It’s a genre that can be difficult for film critics to grapple with psychologically. For one thing, it’s a genre that’s populated with some loathsome examples of implied misogyny and racism. Think of “She’s All That” which, infamously, equated unpopularity with wearing glasses, or the tepid “Save the Last Dance” in which a rich little white girl moves to the ‘hood and learns about love and life from her soulful new African American classmates. Worse still, there’s a stock formula that high school movies often follow. You all know it to well. Nerdy girl/guy falls for popular guy/girl, hatches a kooky plan to win to their heart, and hijinks ensue. It makes reviewing high school films a tedious experience when, having seen so many of them, you know every plot point before the first reel is even over.
But for every terrible high school movie, there are the ones that are truly good films. There are films like “Dazed and Confused” and “The Breakfast Club” that capture the uncertainty and insecurity that encapsulates the teenage experience. Some, like “Mean Girls” or the current favourtie “Easy A,” are legitimately funny while not straying too far from the accepted formula. Others, like the criminally underrated “Drop Dead Gorgeous,” throw the formula right out the window.
“High School” is an odd specimen in that it doesn’t quite fit into any of the above categories. In some ways, it sticks rigidly to the high school movie format. Nerdy Henry (Matt Bush) is top of his class, but he has few friends and the girl he likes (the head cheerleader, natch) barely knows who he is. His childhood friend Travis (Sean Marquette) is the polar opposite, a stoner who cares more about making the perfect bong then getting decent grades. The two estranged friends reconnect one night and Travis leads Henry down the path of cannabis temptation. This of course turns out to be bad timing because the disgusting principal, played by Michael Chiklis, has decided to enforce mandatory drug tests for the entire school.
It’s at this point that the film takes a left turn. It’s obvious from the drug test reveal that the two leads are going to have to find a way to get out of it, especially since for Henry it means his valedictorian spot is on the line. The twist is the method that they choose to get out of it. They steal a ton of high-grade pot from a psychotic local drug dealer, played by Adrien Brody, appropriately named Psycho Ed. They then make a special order of hash brownies for the high school’s bake sale and get everyone, from hip teacher Mr. Ellis (Colin Hanks) to the school bully, high as a kite.
And it is hilarious. Sadly the humour comes less from the two leads and more from the bizarre adventures their peers get into. Colin Hanks and Adrian Brody both put in fun performances in their respective roles. Hanks is the young teacher who hates Chilkis’ principal, a-would-be sexual assaulter and all-around jerk. Under the influence Mr. Elis is finally able to take control of the school and have some great moments with the other teachers in the school (notably one played by Yeardly Smith of “Simpsons” fame who keeps flashing back to her days as a Dead-head). Brody really lets himself go as Psycho Ed, who pursues Travis and Henry through the course of the film trying to get his money and drugs back. It’s a rare comedic turn for the actor and he plays it well.
“High School” would have boosted itself into category of films that are truly unique had director John Stalberg been willing to push the film past the typical high school formula just a little more. The concept is clearly a novel one, but in form it doesn’t stray far from that of the nerd who does good. Henry still manages to snag the girl in an inexplicable romantic sub-plot that could easily have been cut from the film all together. All the other earmarks of teen comedies remain with only a green hazed spin on them. As a high school film, it’s frankly funnier than much of what has managed to get wide-screen distribution over the last few years, something “High School” has yet to receive. But not once did I get the feeling of enjoying something completely unexpected. It is because “High School” settled for being a stoner teen comedy rather than becoming a funny film that is a true original.
. . .
Follow H.G. Watson on Twitter at http://twitter.com/HGWatson7.