Film Review: Tanner Hall

Entertaining but sometimes sophomoric coming-of-age drama about a gaggle of nice and not-so-nice rich girls at a boarding school, boasting star Rooney Mara before her <i>Social Network/Dragon Tattoo</i> coups.

Filmmakers Francesca Gregorini and Tatiana von Furstenberg, both celebrity daughters (Gregorini is Ringo Starr’s stepdaughter and von Furstenberg’s mother is the famous designer), make impressive feature film debuts with their partly autobiographical take on life at a prestigious girls’ boarding school. As co-writers and co-directors, the pair, who met at Brown University, have created some compelling and credible, if sometimes familiar, key characters who engage interest.

Although traces are there, Tanner Hall skirts the excesses of similarly themed films like the ultra-silly St. Trinian’s series, the short-lived period melodrama Cracks, and soft-core cult relic Therese and Isabelle. But while eschewing some failings of the girl-school genre, the film makes some distracting detours into comic territory.

The talented cast, led by Rooney Mara, has a lot to do with sparking things and making Tanner Hall quite watchable. The filmmakers’ highly serviceable story and worthy script are also assets. But the question looms whether decent reviews and Mara’s participation can take the film beyond an initial embrace by young, female-skewed indie fans.

Set at the eponymous fictional New England girls’ school in a purposely unspecified recent past decade (probably the ’70s or ’80s), the plot kicks off with the start of a new school year that brings a clique of seniors back together. These are serious and studious Fernanda (Mara), known to her pals as Fern; Victoria (Georgia King), a British troublemaker from a troubled family; blonde beauty Kate (Brie Larson), the group’s adventurous tease who, while sexually inexperienced, totally obsesses teacher Mr. Middlewood (Chris Kattan); and tomboyish Lucasta (Amy Ferguson), who, as a victim of one of Victoria’s nasty tricks and after rescue by Hank (Shawn Pyfrom), the nice pizza-delivery guy who fancies her, takes steps out of the closet.

But it’s heterosexual love that drives the story as Fern, a newbie to sex, begins an off-campus affair with Gio (Tom Everett Scott), an older local whose romantic partner is Gwen (Tara Subkoff), her mom’s best friend and an expectant mother. No surprise that Fern’s illicit affair with Gio and Victoria’s shenanigans (her theft of the school key that allows the forays into town and her manipulation of Lucasta) drive the drama.

What steers things off-course are the filmmakers’ ill-chosen attempts at comic relief by way of a subplot involving horny school fixture Mrs. Middlewood (Amy Sedaris) and her unsuccessful, frantic attempts to sexually arouse her perpetually unresponsive husband, who goes bananas and AWOL because of the seductive Kate. But the film’s real and tender moments outweigh these indulgences.

The soundtrack comprises a rush of unfamiliar rock that evokes sounds of decades past, and production design also serves the film’s “a little while ago” world. Some inspired cinematography often provides fresh views of things familiar.