October 27, 2009
DVD OF THE WEEK: High School Record
directed by Ben Wolfinsohn
2005, 75 minutes, USA
Factory 25 Where the Wild Things Are tried to emulate the untamed insecurities of childhood via impressionist sun flares and the pageantry of imagination, but it was a blockbuster rumpus too overearnest and laboriously designed to evoke such emotional authenticity. Far more successful in exposing the raw-nerve anxieties of youth onscreen is an older, rougher, hipper kind of wild thing altogether, Ben Wolfinsohn's High School Record, which could still be about King Max if he grew up to be a confused, complicated teenager who finally discovered garage rock. Neither caricatured like Napoleon Dynamite and its whitewashed imitators with hand-drawn titles, nor played for teens-gone-wild shock value (Afterschool, Kids), Wolfinsohn's naturalistic, semi-improvised series of awkward comic vignettes at a performing arts school absolutely nails the liberating/frightening social moments of post-pubescence in all their riches of embarrassments. Having not seen the inside of a locker since the mid-'90s (which reminds me of some sample dialogue that ages me, between two girls who hooked up with the same dude: "You wanna be his girlfriend now? That's so '90s!"), I still recognized enough of my younger unsure self that I was occasionally and unexpectedly laughing aloud. Wolfinsohn's follow-up to his shaggily charming 2002 doc Friends Forever (about young rockers who perform and tour, smoke machine and all, out of their van) technically lies in one of the laziest and most overplayed subgenres, the mockumentary, but the writer-director's instincts are pretty sharp. Making a record of their senior year in both senses of the word, cameraman/guitarist Nicholas (Nicholas Gitomer) and boom operator/drummer Susan (Susan Estrada) are the novice documentarians "behind" the camera (Wolfinsohn shot the film), capturing their classmates in vulnerably candid moments while occasionally rocking out in welcome interludes. (The two perform under the name My Little Red Toe, and share the soundtrack with hipster faves like Dan Deacon, Jad Fair, and No Age—more on the latter later.) Their naïve filmmaking decisions play into the atmosphere seamlessly and sparingly, as they deliberate over whether they should film a couple having sex in the science room, or if Susan should run after a student who has been escorted from class by a police officer. Unlike most mock-docs, there thankfully isn't that oppressive detachment when characters self-awarely mug to the camera, the most ghastly mistake made by narratives meant to look like non-fiction. (Seriously, haven't they got enough footage on The Office yet?) And the grainy, lo-fi digital look serves the subject matter both aesthetically (it's meant to be a DIY project) and thematically (how better to express daily humiliation than with a shaky cam?), without that too-polished, fake-amateur shooting that made Cloverfield so phony-looking. It's also refreshing to see a film about high-school characters that not only aren't stereotypes, but aren't so calculated in their fringe qualities to consciously subvert said stereotypes. Lovably irksome as he tries too hard to fit in, the most uncomfortable player has to be Caleb, played by Dean Allen Spunt—real-life drummer of the noise-rock duo No Age. (Adding street cred à la Rock 'n' Roll High School or Suburbia, many of the actors are musicians from the downtown L.A. scene based around The Smell.) Caleb desperately wants to be edgy-cool, and might've been the class clown if he weren't such a self-serious goon. He misreads a joke and puts epoxy in his hair because he thinks the London kids are doing it, tries to shave a "planetary ring" into his head but gets called a "doughnut-hawk" instead, and looks ill at ease wearing aluminum foil shorts to class. ("Is your dad the Tin Man, or some shit?" mocks a classmate.) Caleb occasionally dates and gets abused by horny swim-team frump Sabrina (Jenna Thornhill, of the catchy post-punk band Mika Miko), who is best friends with impulsive rich chick Erin (Jennifer Clavin, also of Mika Miko), who is seeing swaggering rebel-weirdo Eddie (Bobby Sandoval—yes, another musician). Their sparkly pixie teacher (Becky Stark, frontwoman of wistful indie popsters Lavender Diamond) is obsessed with comedy and good cheer, distressingly so, but when it comes out later that she moonlights as a gifted musician both Eddie and his father respect, she can't just be written off as the hippie-dippie kook. All but forgotten after Sundance and SXSW 2005, High School Record is decidedly a little movie with minor-key goals, but it's damn funny and has a surprising immediacy, just like every waking moment amongst one's peers at that tender age. Thanks to the good folks at Factory 25, a new music-oriented DVD label that was quasi-born of the ashes from Plexifilm (founder Matt Grady was their director of production, and worked on such films as Helvetica and Style Wars), Wolfinsohn's vivid classroom squiggle—or should I say chalkboard sketch, in reference to the film's best scene—has another chance to be uncovered. Also of note, being released today by Factory 25 are You Weren't There: A History of Chicago Punk 1977-84 and All the Way From Michigan Not Mars, a tone-poetic doc about Rosie Thomas, with Sufjan Stevens and Damien Jurado.
Posted by ahillis at October 27, 2009 10:54 AM