The Prank Review: Rita Moreno Is Deliciously Evil In A Black Comedy About A Teacher Framed For Murder [SXSW]

Everyone has that one teacher they absolutely loathe. The kind who inspires ridiculous yet horrible rumors because kids just want to justify their illogical anger with a darker truth. When some wild rumor spreads about a teacher like this, it becomes all too easy to believe. The best part about Maureen Bharoocha's "The Prank" is seeing how blatantly and quickly everyone in this quiet, small-town jumps at the chance to believe the local physics teacher is a cold-blooded murderer.

The film focuses on two high school seniors with squeaky voices. There's Ben (Connor Kalopsis), an overachiever with a strict morning routine who brings a backup for a backup when it comes to his homework. Then there's Tanner ("DC Legends of Tomorrow" star Ramona Young), an underachieving slacker with a dream of musical stardom who sleeps in late, has a days-old energy drink for breakfast, and has no university prospects because she'd just rather wait for climate change to wipe us all out.

When one day, physics teacher Mrs. Wheeler (a deliciously stern and cruel Rita Moreno) decides to fail Ben's entire class to punish one cheater, he does what any reasonable yet disturbed and angry kid would do: suggest they frame their teacher for murder as a prank. Sure, he regrets it the next day, but it's too late. Tanner already spread the rumor through some intricate and convoluted internet back-channel coding. Within a day, the students are demanding justice for a missing kid who Mrs. Wheeler supposedly chopped into pieces and ate (though he probably just OD'ed somewhere in the woods). Within the week, every news channel in the area is covering the news, and the cops are investigating the teacher.

A new iconic villain

When I walked into the theater to see "The Prank," I was worried it would be a critique of cancel culture and how accusations can sometimes be fake but still do irreparable damage. Luckily, one of the best things to be said about the film is that screenwriters Becca Flinn-White and Zak White don't really care about that stuff. Instead of focusing on the accuser/accused dynamics, the film is more interested in how quickly people (especially adults) jump on the latest hot new story.

It's not just that someone accused a known figure in the town of something horrible, it's that every day everyone at school gets obsessed with hot new gossip. And later, it's the fact that apparently, every single person in town hates Mrs. Wheeler. Indeed, the film's funniest running gag is seeing every local news reporter reveal they had Mrs. Wheeler as a teacher and that they hate her guts, before jumping to wild conclusions to support their ludicrously biased reporting. 

Does it lack nuance? Yes. Could the script actually say something more meaningful? Sure. But even in its barebones commentary, "The Prank" is rather funny. This is a somewhat adolescent film about getting back at the figures of authority you know you have no logical reason to hate, and about how quickly people like to jump on the thing everyone else is talking about — even when they have nothing to contribute.

When gossip goes too far

At the center of all this is Rita Moreno. The EGOT winner has reinvented herself over the decades, and she does that once again in "The Prank." As Mrs. Wheeler, Moreno channels every teacher you hated as a kid, all the disdain and smug self-confidence, the condescending way she fails an entire class while telling them it's for their own good, all with the gusto of a cartoon villain

When the rumors start taking hold, Moreno kicks things up a notch. She plays directly into them, dialing up the intensity of her line delivery, her body language expressing a desire to jump and attack, her pleas of innocence, and her threats to her students casting doubts on just what she might be hiding under the black gloves she never seems to take off. As fun as it is to see everyone buy into the rumor, it is even more fun to watch Moreno's performance and speculate if she could actually have the head of her former student hiding in a freezer somewhere.

By the time the third act dives fully into thriller territory, the film plays too safe despite the dialogue and performances selling a more R-rated climax. Regardless, "The Prank" is a fun time about how everyone in a small town comes together to hate on a pretty rad physics teacher, and about how Rita Moreno should get the horror villain vehicle she deserves.

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10