REVIEW: High School Makes Getting High Look Less Than Fun
High School has such a winning premise that you want to send everyone involved in making it back to the drawing board for a do-over — just take it from the top, folks, and this time everyone actually have a good time.
Directed by John Stalberg, who wrote the film with Erik Linthorst and Stephen Susco, this debut feature follows uptight overachiever Henry Burke (Matt Bush) as, on the eve of finals, he dabbles in pot for the first time with his childhood friend-turned-burnout king Travis Breaux (Sean Marquette) — only to be told the next day that principal Leslie Gordon (an almost unrecognizable Michael Chiklis) is instating a student body-wide zero tolerance drug test. The plan the pair come up with to salvage Travis's years of hard work and scholarship to MIT? They're going to get the entire school high to throw off the results.
This is, as far as stoner movies go, kind of ingenious, but High School rushes through the parts it should savor and then pads out its runtime with filler elsewhere — and, less forgivably, it doesn't make getting high look like fun. The stoner comedy as a genre has few requirements other than summoning up a THC haze and being generally good-natured, but High School leaves you feeling like the sober person at a party, wincing at how everyone's acting and wondering if that's how you look when under the influence. This may be because that's how Henry feels all the time — he's a tightly wound scold who belongs to that wan breed of recent high school protagonists (see It's Kind of a Funny Story and The Art of Getting By) who seem on the verge of implosion thanks to some vague, self-imposed psychological distress.
The hollow-eyed Henry reunites with Travis, who is leading a seemingly parentless life on a perpetual high, after nearly running into him in the parking lot and instead hitting the principal's car and earning a detention. "You come to see how the other half lives?" sneers Travis, who's stuck there too. It rings strange — the division between the pair isn't due to any class difference but to a lifestyle one, and Travis hasn't exactly been forced to smoke pot constantly. But the two feel enough nostalgia for their younger days to end up hanging out afterward, where Travis coaxes Henry in smoking his way to an unpleasant first-time high that leaves him paranoid, dazed and with a black eye from falling out of a tree house.
Because this is a stoner comedy, the fact that the setup is creaky and doesn't quite make sense shouldn't be a problem — except that none of the ways in which the film exaggerates are all that funny. Take Chiklis's pompous Principal Gordon, with his flop of greasy hair and secret pervert vibe. He's in the style of an '80s movie authority figure like Mr. Rooney in Ferris Bueller's Day Off, one whose sole motivation is ego and spite — except that High School isn't stylized in the same way. It's grounded enough to realize that parents would instantly protest the gross invasion of privacy represented by mandatory drug testing, but not enough to explain why an administrator would be eager to expel the graduating class' likely valedictorian. Its sense of rebellion is completely phony — that of a kid who, like Henry, got high one time and still talks about it.
The film's major asset, one that's also wasted (in both senses), is Adrien Brody hamming it up as twitchy drug dealer Psycho Ed, a tattooed law school grad (he has "BOOK WORM" across his knuckles) who lost it after smoking a laced joint and has chosen instead to apply his smarts to growing high-octane weed. Sporting cornrows, his bug eyes rolling, Brody should be funny, though Ed's a better idea than he is in practice — you're aggressively aware that he's just an actor showing off the way he's playing against type rather than a character who's amusing in his own right.
There are other side figures who don't click: Sebastian (Adhir Kalyan), Henry's mustache-twirlingly evil rival for the top academic slot; stoner spelling bee champ Charlyne Phuc (Julia Ling), whose last name gets used for a lame joke; well-meaning assistant principal Brandon Ellis (Colin Hanks); a loopy former Deadhead teacher (Yeardley Smith). The movie's big event — the spiking of bake sale brownies with THC crystals — takes place early on rather than toward the end, so it doesn't result in the kind of delirious chaotic payoff you'd expect or want from the film. Students and teachers look dazed, lose focus and say some inexplicable things, and by the time the goofiness comes along, it's too late. It is, horror of horrors, a portrayal of a mildly realistic high, which in the context of what should be an over-the-top film is really the last thing you want. What's the use of a stoner film if it can't convince you that there's at least some fun to be had in the warm embrace of cannabis?