Film Review: Beware the Gonzo

A crusading young reporter's high-school underground newspaper becomes a rallying point for the bullied and the outcast in this low-budget drama filmed in Brooklyn and Queens.

Like last year's high-school misfit story, Easy A, this first directorial effort by writer Bryan Goluboff (the film adaptation of Jim Carroll's The Basketball Diaries, episodes of FX's "Lights Out" and HBO's "In Treatment") opens with said misfit confessing his/her sins and tribulations in a webcast, speaking directly to the camera. But whereas in the former it was an integral element of the episodic plot, providing act breaks and calling attention to itself in a deliberately theatrical fashion that commented on the situational roles we create for ourselves, here it just seems a device that, had it been excised, would have made no difference to the plot. Much of Beware the Gonzo is like that: good ideas, proven ideas, that just miss the mark or aren't utilized as well as they could have been. That tendency—along with a tone that shifts erratically from brutally naturalistic detail to cartoony satire—keeps this brisk, well-acted film about a high-school underground newspaper from achieving the giddy grace of the college-paper film Between the Lines (1977) or the bittersweet melancholia of the misfit-debater movie Rocket Science (2007).

Ezra Miller, a promising young actor who starred in both this and Every Day at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival, plays Ed "Gonzo" Gilman, a self-styled crusading reporter given to clichés about how he'll write a story that will "blow the lid right off" the subject. It's not hard to see why smooth and well-organized fellow senior Gavin Riley (Jesse McCartney) beat him out for editor of the Parker Prep Courier. Gilman is embarrassingly sincere and stridently idealistic, yet his ineptitude at basic newsgathering in an early scene brings nothing so much to mind as Peter "Scoop" Brady in an episode of "The Brady Bunch." Golden-boy Riley is such a mustache-twirling villain, though—he pulls a needless, nasty trick on Gilman and rubs his face in it, and condones his wrestling-team buddies' hazing-style bullying of a small student—that the filmmaker stacks the deck in Gilman's favor as baldly as John Landis did with his evil frat-boy yuppies in National Lampoon's Animal House.

Thrown off the paper after an altercation with Riley, Gilman gathers his somewhat grotesque coterie of friends—the bullied Scott Marshall Schneeman (Edward Gelbinovich), the seethingly angry Ming Na (Stefanie Hong) and "Horny Rob" Becker (Griffin Newman), a lothario of fat and mildly deformed female classmates—to create an underground school newspaper, The Gonzo. The beautiful Evie Wallace (Zoë Kravitz) insinuates herself into the group due to some grudge against Riley—and she's a whiz at web design, too.

That the paper and its website stir up trouble and cause the principal to first try co-opting the implacable Gilman and then threaten to suspend him if he publishes a second issue isn't surprising. But the tactics The Gonzo employs—voyeuristically shooting video of couples cheating on each other, or of a cheerleader throwing up and the paper claiming (falsely, as it turns out) that she's bulimic—are tawdry, and the notion that the paper can successfully turn outcasts into stars (the school band's triangle player becomes the groupie-attracting “Jimi Hendrix of the triangle") is implausible. And The Gonzo's grand exposé of the rats and other health and culinary violations of the school cafeteria is too ham-fisted (so to speak) and full of obvious questions to work: An expensive prep school serves crappy, food-poisoning-inducing lunches and the rich parents never complain? Rats swarm in the cafeteria nightly and no health inspector has ever had cause to notice until now?

To its credit, most of the film's young cast is excellent, avoiding what could have been caricature portrayals; Susan Shopmaker, who also cast the Sundance darling Martha Marcy May Marlene, has an exceptional eye for up-and-comers. We're loath to point out craft deficiencies in low-budget films, but it's impossible not to note the glaring shortcomings of either the lighting or the makeup people; one diner scene with what's supposed to be a glamorous Kravitz has her looking like a subdued clown. Still, filmmaker Goluboff, an NYU film-school graduate and now an adjunct professor of dramatic writing there, does imbue his well-paced movie with visceral heart and sympathy, even for villain Riley—something that, ironically, you can't teach.