Editor’s note: (cough cough) With HIGH School finally opening in limited release today, we thought it most prudent to re-run our review from Sundance 2010. This review was originally posted on January 29, 2010. Enjoy.
Let’s face it, we exist as a generation that has grown up on stoner comedies. There have been drugs in our movies since before we were off the teet. And as a generation – I’m speaking to people in their 20s at this point – we have loved films like Dazed and Confused and Half Baked. Parallel to that cinematic part of our generational upbringing is the fact that most of us grew up in the institution of John Hughes. So it begs the question: what would happen if someone who was influenced by both made a movie? Perhaps, a high school movie about pot, but not just about pot? The answer is simple: you’d get John Stalberg‘s HIGH School.
HIGH School follows the story of a soon-to-be valedictorian named Henry Burke (Matt Bush, Adventureland). He’s only a few days from finishing off his perfect high school career at the top of his class, but a chance encounter with the school’s burnout, Travis Breaux (Sean Marquette, American Son). The day before a lurid drug scandal sends their dictatorish headmaster Dr. Leslie Gordon (played brilliantly by Michael Chiklis) on a tirade to drug test the whole school and get rid of the problem forever, Breaux convinces Henry to take a hit of the chronic.
They soon realize that they’re in a great deal of trouble, and that Henry’s entire life is about to come crashing down. So they do what any resourceful pair of high schoolers would do. They steal a highly potent THC extract from an insanely tattooed drug dealer named Psycho Ed (Adrien Brody) and set off on a plot to get the entire school stoned on the day of testing. And it’s clear up front that these gentlemen are setting out on a plot that will further prove the Chaos theory, in which everything that can go wrong certainly will.
As I mentioned, we’ve all seen our share of stoner comedies. But there’s something different about HIGH School. From the first shot of Chuck star Julia Ling as a spelling bee champion who tokes up before the big competition, only to ignite the school’s biggest scandal, we know that there’s something cool and intense about this film. Then later, as several ridiculous, memorable characters are thrust into the world of Henry and Breaux, we find that under the surface, HIGH School is a really good coming-of-age buddy tale that is set on an absurd plane and run amok under the influence of the stinky green. And its fucking entertaining, through and through.
Most of its entertainment value (and humor) comes from the chemistry between Sean Marquette and Matt Bush. Their characters are in constant conflict based on their social and academic stations, which lends to more than a few funny exchanges (including, but not limited to Marquette unleashing a priceless Jamaican accent, inexplicably). With these two roles cast right and executed well, it leaves room for a host of secondary characters to come in and shine.
Chief among the secondary characters is Adrien Brody as Psycho Ed. His performance is completely unhinged in a way that we’ve never seen before from Brody. Even at his most comedic in films such as The Brothers Bloom and The Darjeeling Limited, Brody was nothing like this. He’s tattooed, perpetually stoned and cuts right through the movie with his blood-shot, wide-eyed intensity. He’s the centerpiece to a buffet of absurdity. Absurdity that includes Colin Hanks (as the Assistant Dean) and a slo-mo Cheez-it experience, and Lisa Simpson-voicer Yeardley Smith as a teacher with a very…unique fantasy about Brian Adams. (You need to see it to believe it, trust me).
On the other side of the spectrum is Chiklis, whose work in this movie I was not even aware of until the closing credits. That’s not to say that he has a small role. Dr. Leslie Gordon is the film’s primary antagonist. It is simply that Chiklis disappears into the role of Gordon and washes away any trace of any character we’ve ever seen from him. Gordon is a prim, proper homage to the likes of Jeffrey Jones’ Ed Rooney in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Except that Gordon fancies himself a bit more high class, and possibly Shakespearean. If there were an award here at Sundance for the most immersed performance (and there should be), Chiklis would win hands down.
In the end, first time feature director Stalberg has made a quantum leap from the short-form of directing commercials to create a stoner comedy worthy of being mentioned in the same paragraph as both Dazed and Confused and the great John Hughes. It’s funny, unpredictable and filled with performances that are as bankable as they big name stars who’ve disappeared into them. It is a well-rounded affair, with detail-oriented set design and a score that brings a fever-pitched intensity, appropriately signaling the many epic confrontations between good and evil, stoner and square. For a movie that could also be easily labeled (though shouldn’t just be labeled) a “stoner comedy,” I think that’s about as good as it gets.