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Brick

By Vince Rogers

During the cinematic heyday of Film Noir, the most unlikely setting one could possibly imagine for exploring the underbelly of society and the dark recesses of the human soul would be an American high school. The appeal of Noir was that it allowed the audience to escape into a murky seedy underworld that was supposedly as far removed from their everyday life as a sit down dinner with the whole family would be to us today. As the American film industry has achieved its goal of uncovering and displaying the depravity and abasement of every manner of "Everyman," the depiction of adult angst, alienation, degradation, and despair has become altogether commonplace. In light of this dismal state of affairs it is absurdly refreshing that Rian Johnson's film Brick introduces us to one of the last unexamined recess of the underbelly of American life and presents a deliciously refreshing new genre - High School Film Noir.

Our guide through this post-Columbine world of high school lunch cliques, four-eyed misfits, femme fatale, and after school drug outfits is Brendan Fry (played with a very appealing degree of unassuming confidence by Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Brendan is a hardboiled veteran of the high school drug turf wars with a face that anybody's mother could love. He is aided in his pursuit to right the wrongs of his cruel, cruel world by his bifocaled cherubim of a sidekick, "the Brain," played very convincingly by young Matt O'Leary. After receiving a desperate phone call from his estranged girlfriend Emily (complete with a classic cryptic message), Brendan sets out to track down his ultimately doomed ex-girlfriend and find out what propelled her on her ill-fated journey into despair that ends with her lying face down in a murky ravine. He goes about the task of kicking ass and taking names while trying to stay afoul of the dreaded "Ass VP" (the Assistant Vice Principal played by Richard Roundtree of Shaft fame), infiltrate the organization of the infamous drug lord called "The Pin" (short for kingpin), evade the grasp of his treacherous ex-girlfriend and partner in crime Kara, and avoid the clutches of Laura the ubiquitous femme fatale and drug-dealing Bohemian poet.

Brick grants us entree into a seldom seen world of teenage speakeasies where the single malt scotch flows easy and a hopped-up high school jock's tongue wags freely. We meet the "out-crowd" of doped up losers who congregate in a teenaged wasteland behind the local java joint, "Coffee and Pie Oh My." We meet a pillow-lipped school play diva with her own personal assistant. We even get to meet the local Keyser Soze, aka The Pin, played by the most veteran actor in the ensemble, Lukas Haas-- a black cloaked, mid-twenties dope dealer who lives in his mom's basement. The characters manage to spend a little time at the beach, when they're not dealing or talking smack. This sprawling landscape of disparate characters and locales helps energize this potentially dreary tale.

Brick was the winner of the Special Jury Prize for Originality of Vision at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. It doesn't take long to understand that this accolade was much deserved. The tableau that director Johnson sets is both visionary and creative, while being true to the execution and style of classic Noir. There are some spots where the dialogue is slightly hard to follow, the plot meanders a bit, and there are some unrealistic developments in the story. However, this is to some degree a testimony to the fact that the director (Johnson) got it exactly right. Anyone who has seen such Noir classics as The Crimson Kimono or The Maltese Falcon will appreciate Brick's adherence to classic Noir convention. It is also worth mentioning that his examination of the new millennium post modern high school experience with its exclusive parties, drug culture, and sexual permissiveness seems to be an authentic depiction of the social trends we see represented in the media. The film successfully merges the High School Angst genre with Classic Film Noir creating what can best be described as LA Confidential meets Heathers--which is not bad company to be mentioned in for a first time director.

There are several performances in the film that seem to bode well for the future prospects of the actors. As previously mentioned, Gordon-Levitt's very capable performance as Brandon, his sensitive persona, and baby-faced good looks appear to make him suitable for a wide spectrum of future roles.

Noah Fleiss' displays an explosive range of emotions and a rugged persona as The Pin's main henchman, Tug. His performance and his appearance are reminiscent of a young James Caan.

Emilie de Ravin as Emily does not occupy as much screen time as some of the other actors (since her demise is the fulcrum of the story), but in the little time she is given she captures the emotional torment and detachment of her character quite convincingly.

It almost goes without saying that I believe the young director Rian Johnson appears to be the emergence of an innovative and visionary young master. Brick is currently playing at the Cinefest Film Theatre on the campus of Georgia State University in downtown Atlanta www.cinefest.org. The film will be available on DVD on August 8, 2006.

For more information check out the Official Website at www.brickmovie.net.

(All photos courtesy of Focus Features)

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