When ambitious, Ivy League-eyeing high school junior Veronica Krauss (Olivia Holt) finds, much to her considerable shock and dismay, that her excellent grades and considerable extracurriculars have only been good enough to land her the #2 ranking in her class, she enacts a crafty, if overblown, scheme to set things right for herself. She encourages her obsessively reform-minded classmate Bernard Flannigan (Skyler Gisondo) to make a serious run for their small town's school board under the guise of fighting the power to enact large-scale change, but her true, far shorter-sighted endgame is really only the abolishment of the class ranking system for her selfish benefit. As can be expected, however, Veronica gets more than she bargained for. Similarly, more awaits anyone going into Eric Stoltz's feature directorial debut, which one could understandably peg in its initial stages as a direct descendant of Alexander Payne's Election. After all, there is an election--albeit a higher-stakes one--and its attendant campaign as its centerpiece, but furthermore its central pair of teen characters between themselves split different aspects of Tracy Flick's aggressively ambitious persona. If Veronica more overtly recalls Reese Witherspoon's now-iconic Type-A paragon on first glance, then Bernard embodies her more extremely anti-social, OCD, possibly on-the-spectrum behaviors. If one had to directly model after a high school-centric comedy, Payne's film would be a more savvy choice than most. But Stoltz and writer Benjamin August are also savvier than most filmmakers, and if Election were an inspiration, it is just that--a jumping-off point for a film that may not exactly break free from the constraints of genre convention but ends up covering the familiar ground with its own distinct personality and style.
And what mostly sets this film apart from its ilk proves to be the uncommon intelligence of the overall approach. The log line labels Veronica and Bernard as "outcasts," but that proves to be a bit of an overstatement. While they are certainly not part of whatever "in-crowd" there may be at their school, their individual eccentricities have them on the fringes in a realistic way. There's none of the contrived bullying one expects, in its place being a general pay-no-mind indifference, from peer and adult alike, to the pair's respective obsessions and foibles. From that, the rest of the film follows, for there is no broadly, easily villainous type present in the film at all, whether student, faculty, administrator, or even parent; thus the focus more clearly and cleanly zeroes in on the central idea at hand: that the two are their own worst enemies, and they need to get over themselves to be awakened to what's truly worthwhile in their lives and in life as a whole. Boiled down into concrete words, this sounds corny, but in execution on screen it's all rather affecting, with Stoltz's understated but sure direction eliciting vivid, multi-dimensional, and highly appealing turns by Holt and Gisondo, who are equally adept at selling both the absurd humor of August's characters and the genuine, relatable emotions that drive their behaviors and goals. That latter statement comes to apply to the supporting cast, notably the character of Bernard's reclusive grandfather (Bruce Dern). He enjoys his own slowly, stealthily building subplot that not only serves as a mirror that nicely supports his grandson's journey but also further drives home what is ultimately a universal message that applies to audiences of all ages. Said message may not be new, but the genuine heart behind the film from beginning to end earns the turn from the silly to sentimental, and elicits genuine feeling to go with all the fun.
Paris Can Wait (PG)
For her first narrative feature, on paper writer/director Eleanor Coppola would appear to have made it easy on herself, crafting a simple lark where two characters talk and talk over one long road trip, their mutual affection for each other growing as the run time progresses; with said road trip being one along a conveniently picturesque route between Cannes and the City of Lights, Coppola appears to have made it that much easier. But even with the agelessly incandescent Diane Lane on board as a Hollywood film producer's (a barely seen Alec Baldwin) wife who, through some only-in-the-movies contrivances, is driven by her husband's French business partner (Arnaud Viard) to not only her physical destination but an unforeseen (to her, at least) emotional one, this is one extremely tedious trip. Lane's--and, for that matter, Viard's--natural likability only go so far when their characters are sketchy at best, spoiled and incredibly unrelatable at worst, thus leaving the viewer with no vested interested in whatever relationship blossoms between the two. As Viard obnoxiously insists on various extravagant, self-indulgent stopovers along the way, the viewer's impatience grows in exponentially inverse proportion to Lane's inevitable emotional thawing, which always plays more according to script than by any convincing common ground between the pair. Though the film encompasses several days, it only runs a scant 92 minutes, but once the travelogue novelty of the posh locations and fine cuisine wears off--which is quickly, if not almost immediately--this slog feels like it is unfolding in real, interminable time.