PARK CITY, Utah (Hollywood Reporter) - Is there anything new to say about high school torments? Probably there is, but “Assassination of a High School President” doesn’t find enough novel insights to make for essential viewing. It has echoes of a lot of other movies about adolescent angst and cruelty, from “Election” to “Thumbsucker,” “Rocket Science” and “Charlie Bartlett,” but it doesn’t live up to the best of those.
Alexander Payne’s “Election” might still be the definitive word on the cutthroat atmosphere of high school. “Assassination,” which had its premiere here, won’t achieve the same classic stature.
It will, however, be remembered for confirming the talent of the leading man, Reece Daniel Thompson, who starred as the stuttering teen hero of last year’s Sundance prize-winner, “Rocket Science” and here demonstrates the same ease and charm, minus the stuttering. Not many young actors convey intelligence, but Thompson is completely convincing and immensely likable as an aspiring journalist who wants to expose the truth about the school’s top jock.
As the prom queen who takes him under her wing, Mischa Barton also gives a captivating performance. These two actors make the movie worth seeing, even though the script by Tim Caplan and Kevin Jakubowski veers from genuine wit to more routine high jinks.
At his Catholic school in New Jersey, Bobby Funke (Thompson) is beset by a lot of the typical teen perils — school bullies, an overbearing Spanish teacher (amusingly played by Josh Pais), a tyrannical principal (Bruce Willis) and, of course, the first stirrings of love and lust. The opening scenes have a lot of raunchy interchanges that make us feel we might be in a Judd Apatow high school movie. But “Assassination” turns out to be more of a high school detective story. When a bunch of SAT exams are stolen from the principal’s office, Bobby determines that the school president, Paul Moore (Patrick James Taylor), must be the thief and exposes him in the school paper. He ruins Moore’s life, but as he gets to know Moore’s girlfriend, Francesca (Barton), he begins to have second thoughts and sets out to rectify matters and find the true culprit.
A high school mystery with a teenage sleuth is an appealing concept, but even this isn’t a new notion. A couple of years ago, another Sundance entry, “Brick,” mined the same territory with a tad more style and originality. The mystery story in “Assassination” is fun and would be even more fun if the denouement weren’t so transparent. Anyone who has a passing familiarity with Hollywood murder mysteries will be able to guess the ending long before Bobby nails the villain. At least the film doesn’t take itself too seriously. The last line is a tongue-in-cheek homage to the ending of “Chinatown.”
Director Brett Simon must be credited with an energetic spin on a lot of tired tropes, but he also misses certain opportunities. In a delightful scene where Bobby cuts loose and dances at a party, the director keeps cutting away from his star and minimizes the impact of Thompson’s performance.
In addition to Thompson and Barton, the other young actors also are very skillful. Willis seems to be having fun with his role, and Kathryn Morris is entertaining as the addled school nurse. On the other hand, Michael Rapaport has little to do as the basketball coach; his part might have been left on the cutting-room floor.
The film runs a tight 90 minutes, so at least it doesn’t wear out its welcome. The song selections are smart. All in all, the film is a likable goof that evaporates as soon as the lights come on.
Bobby Funke: Reece Daniel Thompson
Francesca Fachini: Mischa Barton
Principal Kirkpatrick: Bruce Willis
Clara Diaz: Melonie Diaz
Paul Moore: Patrick James Taylor
Marlon Piazza: Luke Grimes
Coach Z: Michael Rapaport
Padre Newell: Josh Pais
Nurse Platt: Kathryn Morris
Director: Brett Simon; Screenwriters: Tim Caplan, Kevin Jakubowski; Producers: Bob Yari, Roy Lee, Doug Davison; Director of photography: M. David Mullen; Production designer: Sharon Lomofsky; Co-producers: Elsie Choi, Suzanne Smith; Costume designer: Amy Westcott; Editors: William Anderson, Thomas J. Nordberg.