Toronto After Dark is always full of pleasant surprises. Having only seen this rather enigmatic trailer for HIGH School, I really had no idea what to expect. I was vaguely aware that the movie had been well received at Sundance earlier this year, but beyond that I knew nothing. That’s probably the best way to go into any film; having no prior knowledge and no expectations can often result in a better film experience. That’s how I went into HIGH School, and I was pleased to discover a raucous teenage caper film in the vein of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Risky Business.
Spoilers to follow.
In director John Stalberg’s feature film debut, a promising student named Henry Burke (Matt Bush) faces expulsion when the overzealous Dean (Michael Chiklis) of his high school announces that all students will face a mandatory drug tests. Ordinarily this kind of thing wouldn’t be an issue for Henry, a reserved straight A student who has never tried a drug in his life. However, a chance encounter with his one-time friend and resident stoner, Breaux (Sean Marquette), leads to his first experience with marijuana. With the drug test looming and his scholarship to MIT on the line, Henry and Breaux devise a plan to get the entire school high. Hey, they can’t expel everyone!
HIGH School is for all intents and purposes a stoner film: a movie about people who get stoned, and as was the case with the screening I was at, it was a movie being watched by people who were stoned. HIGH School is a very funny film, but it also serves as wonderful social commentary on the perceptions of pot and pot users, specifically the stigmas still associated with the drug in the United States. The premise of the film reminded me of Homer Simpson’s famous adage about alcohol, “the cause of… and solution to… all of life’s problems”. Indeed, the central dilemma of HIGH School was caused by—and is solved by—marijuana.
Bush and Marquette make an interesting pairing in the film, an odd couple who really aren’t all that different. Both are outsiders at their high school, one is ostracized for being an overly studious geek and the other for his drug experimentation and constant fuckuperry. Perhaps most importantly, Bush and Marquette play very convincing high school students, despite the fact that the two are old enough to be finished college.
If you see HIGH School for one reason though, it should be for the offbeat performances delivered by Adrien Brody and Michael Chiklis. Brody plays Psycho Ed, a drugged out narcotics dealer and former wunderkind who unwittingly provides Henry and Breaux with a needed ingredient for their scheme. Brody manages to be both scary and funny at the same time; his twitchy interactions with others and the weed-fueled “conversations” with his pet toad are beyond ridiculous, but Brody sells it. Chiklis channels a combination of Wayne Knight and Jeffrey Jones for his twisted portrayal of Principle Gordon; a hypocritical bureaucrat who tries to rule the high school like a dictator. Chiklis is so grating and unpleasant in the role that I literally applauded when he got his inevitable comeuppance.
The film is not without its flaws, but HIGH School is so much fun that these shortcomings can be easily overlooked. That said, the film feels a little longwinded and there are definitely some pretty major plotholes. However, what works, works very well and that’s all that matters in a film like this. You’ll root for the underdogs, laugh your ass off and probably crave brownies afterward. What more can you ask for?