Friday, November 10, 2006
The high school nerd gets his just due in this hardboiled noir set in some chillingly remote California suburb. Branden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a loner with glasses who eats lunch by himself near the dumpsters behind the high school. He used to be more social, but druggie Laura (Nora Zehetner) broke his heart. His lonesome blues are over when note in his locker leads him to a remote pay phone where his Laura soon calls, raving about “the pin’s brick” and asking for Branden's help. The only other guy with glasses and a modicum of intelligence in the school is Brain (Matt O'Leary) who lends his aid. Branden runs up the social ladder in search of his girlfriend’s assailants, finding drugs, decadence and deceit all the way. That’s all fine and good in an update on various themes from Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett (drug wars with the detective hero pretending to be on both sides; a femme fatale; an uneasy truce with the fall-guy seeking police; expendable patsies, POV beatings, etc.)
In addition to the cleverness of transporting this noir scenario to a high school setting, the choice to play Branden as utterly fearless is utterly awesome. The closest thing to him in film of recent memory is probably Billy, the kid from American Beauty who deals Kevin Spacey his government-grade pot. To overcome fear at that age is no easy feat, but Brandon takes endless beatings, picking fights with hulking football players and drug thugs and winning every time. When his glasses are punched off his face, he merely pulls out a case with another pair, the way Clint Eastwood might pull out a cheroot in a Sergio Leone western.
Along with the amazing, clever dialogue and the great use of geometric composition to establish a sense of suburban desolation at every turn, this is easily the best neo-noir since The Last Seduction and an important step forward in showing young male viewers a protagonist other than the simple minded hunk bore who gets the girl or the coded gay best friend hysteric in the chick flick; the sneering pretty boy; the geeky obese avenger; and so on. Enacted by Gordon-Levitt, Brandon is an inspiring character who should motivate a generation of men and teens to stand up and take their punches like a man, then throw back with everything they have, all in the name of love... baby. Lukas Haas also scores as the drug kingpin. They have some great Sergio Leone-style staring contests.