The Adirondack Review
Brick
Reviewed by Nathaniel Missildine
Starring Joseph Gordon-LevittWritten and Directed by Rian Johnson    Rated R
For a long time, the chosen formats when portraying the lives of
contemporary high school kids on film were either raucous sex comedy,
blood-soaked horror, or any combination of the two.  Based on repeat
successes, these became the accepted ways to distill the drama of high
school.  But recently the intended audiences seem to have grown tired
of watching themselves cast in such a light, and have graduated to pure
fantasies starring wizards or pirates.

One new take is Brick, a film sorely overlooked last year in both the
box office and in the windstorm of year end critics' recaps and
awards.  From writer and director Rian Johnson, this film chooses a
fresh angle on American high school life - noir.  In Brick, the
dialogue and narrative is lifted from 40s Private Dick films like The
Maltese Falcon, while the setting remains a typical California high
school.  We hear a line like "Your muscle seemed plenty cool putting
his fist in my head" followed by an oblivious mother bringing in milk
and cookies for everyone.   Or the hero utters "I gave you Jerr to see
him eaten, not to see you fed" to which a vice-principal replies,
"Well put," and our guy shoots back, "Accelerated English."  This kind
of peculiar juxtaposition of setting and mood is off-putting at first
but once your initial chortling is over, the film turns out to be one
of the most resonant portraits of the miasma of high school in a
decade.

Filling in the Sam Spade role is JosephGordon-Levitt, who quickly
shakes the memory of his days as the whippersnapper on 3rd Rock From
the Sun.  He plays Brendan Frye, a taciturn kid with seemingly one
lone friend, whom he calls The Brain, and a lost love who's gotten
mixed up with the wrong crowd.  When the girl turns up dead early on,
Brendan embarks on the hunt to find the culprit.  With his hands
either jammed deep into his pockets or knocking out the teeth of people
who get in his way, Brendan's search leads him to the local drug
dealer referred to as the Pin.  This weasely bad guy is played by
Lukas Haas whose ears and doe-eyes clue you in to the fact that he was
the little Amish boy from Witness.  Though, like Levitt, Haas uses
this pre-pubescent association to his advantage and makes his
performance a neverending surprise.

As the story unfolds and ugly truths are revealed, we're treated to
images and moments that match the clever writing.  When Brendan
regains consciousness after a ride in a trunk, the focus is blurred
until we watch him carefully put on his glasses, bringing the villain
into view.  In another scene, Brendan matter-of-factly relieves a "hashhead" of the straw that he had been annoyingly treating as a slide whistle. He returns it only after tying a knot in its middle. Moments like this deepen our experience of this noir world, a
little more surreal and ironic than Sam Spade's and much closer to
home.

It was only days afterward, the film still sticking with me, that I
learned the writer and director shot the whole production at the same
high school that he, in reality, attended.   Perhaps because of his
intimacy with the atmosphere, Johnson transcends the conceit of this film by infusing his subjects with intelligence and grace
that he himself wants to linger with.  By the time the whole venture
is well under way, or possibly from the moment Brendan warns the
hashheads "I've got all five senses and I slept last night so I'm six
up on the lot of you," we want to linger here too.


For more from the author, please visit www.nathanielmissildine.com.


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