SXSW Movie Review: The Assassination Of A High School President

Just three years old, high school-noir got its start with Rian Johnson's Brick (released in 2006 after being picked up at the Sundance Film Festival a year earlier). Set in a Northern California high school and centered on the investigation of missing student by her former boyfriend, a detective of sorts, and featuring hyper-stylized dialogue and impressive visual design and cinematography, Brick was a noir fan's dream (other film fans were probably not as impressed). The Assassination of a High School President takes a similar premise (minus the hyper-stylized dialogue), borrows classic noir elements (e.g., the detective, the femme fatale, moral ambiguity, corruption, double- and triple crosses), and combines them with teen genre elements to create a wholly satisfying, enthralling high school-noir every bit the equal of Brick.

Funke (Reece Thompson), a sophomore at a Catholic high school in New Jersey, St. Donovan's, sees the perfect opportunity to make a name for himself and get a coveted summer scholarship at Northwestern after SAT exams are stolen from the principal's safe during a basketball game. Despite a crush on the student paper's editor-in-chief, Clara (Melonie Diaz), Funke really longs for Francesca Piazza (Mischa Barton), the most beautiful girl in high school. She's also wealthy (or rather her family is). Funke's investigation eventually the evidence points to the student body president, Paul Moore (Patrick Taylor), a not bright jock dating Francesca. A front-page article later and Funke is at the top of the world. Francesca shows interest in him, he's invited to one of her parties, and gets the summer scholarship to Northwestern. Francesca's step-brother, Marlon (Luke Grimes), replaces Moore as president.

As in any good noir, though, Funke is in way over his head. Once he begins to backtrack, he discovers that his initial suspicions may have been wrong. In true Woodward and Bernstein fashion (Woodward and Bernstein almost single-handedly exposed the Watergate break-in and cover-up in the early 1970s), Funke follows the money. What he finds, though, threatens to undermine everything he's achieved or thinks he's achieved. Funke is forced to choose between personal integrity and his desire for the truth and the ease and comfort associated with his newfound status in high school. Again in classic noir fashion, Funke has to risk life and limb (mostly limb) to get at the truth, but a noir hero or anti-hero isn't defined so much by his bravery (although there is that) as much as his almost superhuman ability to withstand physical beatings.

Screenwriters Tim Calpin and Kevin Jakubowski, both Catholic school grads, were obviously inspired by Roman Polanski and Robert Towne's Chinatown, a modern noir known for its clever, convoluted, labyrinthine plotline, and a memorable third-act twist that's become a pop culture staple. If you've seen Chinatown, then you'll be one step ahead of audiences who haven't. The Assassination of a High School President also includes a Sunset Boulevard-style voiceover narration (without the body in the pool, though). Calpin and Jakubowski keep the stylized dialogue noir is known for to a minimum, something first-time director Brett Simon also wanted, in part to distinguish The Assassination of a High School President from Brick.

Simon, a former video director, shows flashes of visual style here, but like Calpin and Jakubowski, he doesn't overdo style, letting the story, setting, and needs of the characters determine the scene-specific visual style. Likewise with Simon's direction of the actors. While Bruce Willis, playing an authoritarian principal who served in the military during the first Persian Gulf War, probably doesn't need much direction, the relatively young cast probably did. Reece Daniel Thompson, memorable as the stuttering debater in last year's Rocket Science, is even better here. He seems to have matured, both physically and emotionally. Mischa Barton is surprisingly convincing as the ambiguously motivated Francesca, but maybe she just played to her strengths (or her limitations) as an actress. Either way, The Assassination of a High School President is the first (or is it the second?) must-see film of this still-young year.

/Film Rating: 9 out of 10