Film Review: General Education

Comedy-drama of high-school senior keeping a failing grade, subsequent summer school and imperiled athletic scholarship secret from his tennis-obsessed father.

A technically impressive tapioca of a movie, the bland indie seriocomedy General Education may serve as an early springboard for a couple of talented young actors, but little else. It's a movie only producers and casting directors would want to see, and since that may be entirely the point, the formulaic and insipid script may not even matter.

A first feature for director and co-writer Tom Morris—a 2010 graduate of Brooks Institute whose shorts "Ships Wrecked Cove!" and "It's Not About Coffee" show an accomplished eye and an ability to elicit good performances from his actors—General Education treads the familiar territory of a parentally pressured teen who can't stand up to his father. Unfortunately, our protagonist can't stand up to anyone else either, and blindly follows the lead of even an idiot redneck and a guy called Shady Nick. Having a hero with an invertebrate's backbone doesn't make for a compelling story, at least not unless it's a Caspar Milquetoast comedy about precisely that, which this isn't.

Levi Collins (Chris Sheffield), the middle child of a small-town family wealthy enough to give their kids Mercedes Benzes for their high-school graduation, is torn between a tennis scholarship to a college where generations of his family have played, or leaving the sport behind and going elsewhere. He's so terrified of his genially despotic father (Larry Miller), who either owns or runs the local country club and is also the town mayor, that Levi skips a crucial science class to play in a tournament. He fails the class and doesn't graduate, but can salvage the scholarship with a 10-day summer-school makeup.

You could write the rest yourself—except for a tonally tin-eared scene in which Levi plans to break into the school dressed in a raccoon costume for no discernible reason other than that the filmmakers must have had one around. Given cinema's history of this sort of thing, I'm surprised it wasn't a gorilla suit. Either way, it's senseless given the straitlaced and sensible-seeming character.

Many less theatrical problems abound with the story, in which a pair of supporting-character friends are introduced early on, disappear and are replaced by two other supporting-character friends. One scene has Mom (Janeane Garafolo) drunk in a bathtub as her kids try to help—and that issue immediately disappears too, with her apparent alcoholism having no effect whatsoever on the plot or her character. The well-to-do family—they have a handyman/servant and Dad wears tailored suits—apparently hasn't enough bedrooms or even beds for three kids, and so visiting big brother Brian (Bobby Campo) and Levi have to share a bed. And at one point Levi's new girlfriend Katie (Maira Walsh) asks whatever happened to him the night before, even though she was right there when he got arrested for vandalizing a police car. (Long story, and not interesting.)

Salvaging things somewhat are Morris' confident eye, Brooks Ludwick's glistening cinematography (using a state-of-the-art Red Digital Cinema camera, which ain't cheap) and Tyler MacIntyre's seamless editing. The movie's pace may be so slow it feels almost like real time, but the cuts themselves—usually one of small movies' biggest shortcomings—are flawless. Also worth kudos are young actresses Walsh and, as Levi's kid sister, McKaley Miller, and actor Peter S. Williams, who takes a one-note redneck character named Opie and somehow, impossibly, gives him a sense of depth and inner life.

I think and hope we'll be seeing more of director Tom Morris—and hopefully less of screenwriter Tom Morris.

General Education opens in Manhattan today and is scheduled for an 11-theatre run in Arizona, California, Boston, Seattle and Columbus, Ohio.