SCREENED AT THE 2005 SXSW FILM FESTIVAL: High School is a rough period in anyone’s life. Either it’s the worst four years or they are the only four good ones in a life whose glory years ended on Prom night. I certainly don’t want to re-live mine and I’m thankful that no one was there filming a documentary at the time capturing my misery; despite the irony that I was actually making movies with my fellow students. I’ve written stories about the experience; the nuggets that I thought others would find interesting and entertaining. Ben Wolfinsohn’s High School Record is like one of the ideas I would have discarded.Two students have decided to film that documentary about their fellow students. We never really delve into what their ultimate goal is. They more or less follow a few choice students and point the camera. Since they go to the high school of independent film, we’re mainly treated to one class, one teacher and virtually nothing outside of their subjects. Unfortunately they have chosen some of the least interesting and most obnoxious teenagers available.
In the drama class we will meet Caleb (Dean Allen Spunt), the kind of geek that even the geeks hate. He has an aura of superiority that lets him say or do anything he pleases (like wearing tinfoil pants) without ever recognizing the consequences. He is just asking for a punch, and our sympathies would turn a blind eye to his pummeling. He’s dating another outsider, the hippie-esque Sabrina (Jennifer Thorhill) who keeps it real and her armpits natural. Eddie (Bobby Sandoval) is the tough guy who punches geeks in the arm and Erin (Jennifer Calvin) is so anonymous I’ve already forgotten why she was followed around in the first place.
Sure these kids are going through an awkward phase and not particularly the most pleasant of company, but there’s not a shred of fascination to draw us into their stories. Popular kids have a lifestyle that might be alien to those of us who never experienced it and the nerds likely have a personality and a rooting interest. These are most certainly the former half of the “freaks-and-geeks” equation, yet even that label suggests an individuality that none of these characters possess. Maybe Wolfinsohn finds something with them to latch onto, but why would the filmmakers-within-the-film take these subjects on as an exclusive? Perhaps they should stick with their junior varsity Jonathan Richman music stylings, because the A/V club would likely smack them down for such an amateurish effort.
Mockumentaries often work due to the actors and not always the material. Christopher Guest and Ricky Gervais have worked with flimsy constraints before but surrounded themselves with talent who knew what was funny about any given situation and on top of it created characters who behaved with a certain degree of believability within those circumstances. A major problem with High School Record is it doesn’t appear to have decided if it’s a serious mock documentary or a documentary seriously mocking these kids. None of the actors are strong enough to adapt to the improvisation clearly on display and that leaves us wondering if they are behaving naturally or are just bad actors. There is one truly funny scene when several of them try to decipher the inner workings of a vagina on a blackboard. It has the spontaneity and naivete that we can appreciate even while it further clouds the issue of what tone the film is trying to live up to.There are many films and television shows that have dug hard to find the reality of the humor of the teenage experience. Freaks and Geeks, My So-Called Life and even something as hyper-realistic as Napoleon Dynamite bring back what it was like to be of that age no matter what class or rank you belonged to. Millions of miles away, someone is probably studying us; identifying the period of high school as a test that the humans put children through in-between puberty and adulthood to see how they will adapt and survive. I certainly hope that they don’t use this film as any sort of definitive record.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Sundance Film Festival. For more in the 2005 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 SXSW Film Festival. For more in the 2005 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.