Thursday, November 12, 2009

Assassination of a High School President

[Reprinted from, a site for which I no longer write.]

Premiering at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival to rave reviews, Brett Simon's Assassination of a High School President was finally released on DVD a couple months ago. The film was promised a theatrical release in March of 2009, but actually went direct-to-DVD, thanks to the Yari Film Group's releasing division filing for bankruptcy in December of 2008.

Assassination of a High School President
Writer/Director: Brett Simon
Starring: Reece Thompson, Mischa Barton, Bruce Willis

The film is a noir mystery set in a Catholic high school, revolving around Bobby Funke (Reece Thompson), a sophomore reporter for the school newspaper, as he stumbles through a web if illegal activity and uncovers a conspiracy to frame the president of student council for stealing the SAT's. Along the way, he is seduced by Francesca Facchini (Mischa Barton), a popular senior at the school, and has various run-ins with the Gulf War Veteran principal, Kirkpatrick (Bruce Willis).

The movie has been called an homage to Roman Polanski's neo-noir Chinatown, and the similarities are prevalent throughout; the final line in Assassination even puts a predictable spin on Chinatown's famous last line, "Forget it, Jake - it's Chinatown." Like Nicholson's character in the 1974 classic, Funke gets deeper into the fray and finds the scope of his discovery is far bigger than he originally imagined.

Brett Simon's direction is solid for a debut feature film, but the movie itself fails to extend beyond its intriguing logline. The deception and misdirection feel played out, and we don't spend enough time with any of the side characters for their actions and motivations to be emotionally effective. Reece Thompson did a great job and held the film together; after seeing him in this and another film fest favorite Rocket Science, his status as a rising star should be cemented. Mischa Barton was watchable (which is more than I can say about any of her other performances, save her extremely brief cameo in The Sixth Sense) and Bruce Willis was entertaining as the borderline-crazy war veteran who runs his high school the same way he ran his command unit in the Gulf.

The main problems I have with Assassination of a High School President aren't necessarily with the movie when viewed by itself, but become glaringly clear when compared to another film noir set in a high school, Rian Johnson's 2006 masterpiece Brick. The world of Brick pays homage not to neo-noirs like Chinatown and Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye, but to film noir institutions like The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon. Brick feels so much more pure than Assassination; the pulpy dialogue in the former is no match for the occasional one-liner in the latter.

There's not much else I can say without giving away major plot points, so I'll just conclude this review by telling you I was a little disappointed with the movie. Perhaps it was because I heard some good hype coming out of Sundance, but this film didn't live up to my expectations. I'll admit - I'm coming down a little harshly on Assassination of a High School President because of my bias in favor of Brick. If you haven't seen either film, give Assassination a shot (see what I did there?!) - noir fans should be pulled into the comparatively innocent world Simon has crafted, where detectives are reporters and cigarettes are replaced with chewing gum. But after you see this, check out Brick if you're looking for the best in the subgenre; I'd also recommend Rocket Science (even though it's not a noir) for another great performance by Reece Thompson. Until next time...

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