Dir: Brett Simon. US. 2008. 98mins.
Brett Simon's Assassination of a High School President is a small and pleasant surprise. It's a mostly energetic satire of the sexual, social and political hierarchies of contemporary high school reconceived, like Rian Johnson's Brick, as a postmodern noir. Its throwaway accessibility makes it go down very easily.
The movie's obvious comparisons, from Lord Love a Duck to John Hughes's cycle of high school comedies to more recently Heathers, Dazed and Confused and Rushmore, of teenage culture told from the perspective of a nebbish outsider, creates a glancing and off-beat quality that proves more appealing than ingratiating. The writers, Tim Calpin and Kevin Jakubowsi, never shy away from movie quotations and famous dialogue, like Chinatown or a secondary character whose vocal speech and accent mimic Al Pacino's Scarface performance. The movie's far from a complete success and it is hurt by some very unfunny and strained moments that create some jarring and unfortunate sequences.
Opening in the Sundance premiere section in advance of its August release from the Yari Film Group, the movie is less formally ambitious than Johnson's 2005 Sundance dramatic competition title. It also has several moments, especially some sexually revealing scenes with star Mischa Barton that young teenagers are not going to find on reruns of The OC or the cult show Veronica Mars. Sending up his own image, Bruce Willis plays the school principal, and his presence probably pushes the title into some international markets otherwise not predisposed to welcome American teenage comedies.
'Welcome to the halls of hypocrisy,' says the movie's protagonist, Bobby Funke (Bottle Rocket). He's a sophomore at a Catholic New Jersey high school and an aspiring journalist avid to get accepted into a prominent university program. Tormented by his peers, he jumps at the opportunity to prove his mettle and agrees to write for the school newspaper a profile of Paul Moore (Taylor), the handsome and charismatic school president and basketball star.
His expose uncovers academic cheating that immediately vilifies Moore and elevates his own profile. He even steals the guy's girlfriend, the beautiful Francesca (Barton). In navigating the school's social realm with sudden ease and confidence, Funke is increasingly convinced his scoop was staged. He sets out to uncover a wider and more nefarious ring of academic transgressions, drug dealing and personal subterfuge.
The movie's strongest in detailing the social world these kids inhabit, pointing out their insouciance and extreme forms of entitlement and how language, social manners and appearance are as rigid as Elizabethan England. As long as the film is about the teenagers, the movie is fun and likeable and the tone feels right and natural. The movie is a lot less interesting whenever adults appear. Willis' turn as an Iraqi war veteran who imagines his reign in military metaphors is a one joke idea that quickly loses its gusto and drive. Likewise, the movie's recurrent scenes that involve a gay Spanish teacher (Pais) are outright creepy and singularly unfunny.
The young actors pull it off. Thompson is likable and Barton reveals a darkly funny femme fatale malice that serves the part well. The Sundance darling Melonie Diaz also transcends an underwritten part through moxie and funky intelligence to score as the high school newspaper editor. Assassination of a High School President is smart enough never to deny its own cynicism.
Yari Film Group
Yari Film Group Releasing
Director of photography
M. David Mullen
Thomas J. Nordberg
Zachary George Roerig
Patrick James Taylor