It’s kind of a bummer that the stoner comedy High School doesn’t aim higher than it does. There’s some good performances and scattered gags that are giggle worthy, but it all goes up in smoke thanks to a languid pace, obvious dust from sitting on the shelf for far to long, and a clear lack of focus on what style of comedy it wants to adhere to possibly because one gets the sense that director John Stalberg Jr. has never been high in his life. It has some elements that are okay and the premise is sound, but a comedy about a drug that lends itself well to cinema should never feel this blunted.
Morgan High School senior Henry (Matt Bush) has pretty much secured his scholarship to MIT and could easily coast through the rest of the year to become valedictorian of his class. Following an accident involving his former best friend and current massive stoner and underachiever Travis (Sean Marquette), Henry takes his first toke only one day before the school’s totalitarian ruler (a thoroughly unrecognizable Michael Chiklis, angered over a Spelling Bee debacle involving a student under the influence) implements a zero tolerance mandatory drug test for all students promising to expel them if they fail.
So far so good, since the film sets up its premise in a fairly straightforward fashion as Travis devises a way to get the entire school high so everyone fails the drug test. With the piss tests taking place the same day as the PTA bake sale, Henry and Travis conspire to steal some super potent weed from a heavily tattooed, insane weed genius (Adrien Brody) to make their own brownies and switch out the parental ones. Naturally things get complicated, but the complications are the kind that Stalberg ultimately can’t handle.
High School becomes the kind of film that feels arbitrary and simultaneously takes on more plot elements than the film can handle. There’s the two subplots involving the principal, the story involving the assistant dean (Colin Hanks) trying to get to the bottom of things, the principal’s cougar wife, the girl that Henry likes, the principal’s cougar wife, the spelling bee contestant, Brody’s character trying to track down his weed. It just can’t keep things simple, and as a result it’s never allowed the chance to get any of its tonally disparate elements correct.
There seems to be an attempt being made to replicate the more sensitive buddy elements of the Harold and Kumar films, but at times Stalberg and his two other co-writers act like they want to make the next American Pie film or an 80s high school film with stabs at transgressive and edgy humour that feel forced and tacked on just to ensure an R-rating. None of it really adds up because it isn’t over the top enough to be silly fun and not smart enough to be believable.
High School seems to luck into its laughs almost on accident or because Bush and Marquette are doing the best they can with the material they’ve been given. It’s a hard task, but they almost pull it off. Brody and Hanks are also genuinely great in their roles, but they’re both slaves to the film’s plot convenience. There’s also some support from Yeardley Smith who gets some snickers as a teacher who progressively throughout the day stops caring about her class entirely.
It doesn’t help that any film that uses the stock “super potent strain of weed” plot device feels like shorthand for “the filmmakers have never had a joint in their lives.” Having been around people that are high, I can safely say that only a few people in the film seem to really get it, but the script forces them to all give tonally inconsistent performances. Some people go flat out insane while others just stay as calm as possible. Stalberg seems to have so little control over the material that he just shrugs it off.
After premiering at the After Dark festival over two years ago, the film has some definite shelf wear (Myspace references, anyone?) and it looks like it was shot even well before that. It’s strange to say this about a film that hasn’t seen release until 2012, but this hasn’t aged well, and at 100 minutes any buzz viewers might have worked up will probably be wearing thin around the 75 minute mark when the film starts spinning its wheels until it reaches an ending that’s equal parts convenient and off putting, hinging on a grosser aspect of Chiklis’ principal that sends a previously genial and deeply flawed film out on a sleazy note. By the time it’s over, though, most viewers won’t need to smoke up to forget what they just saw.