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Science Boy’s High School Reunion

This is not the first time I’ve been asked to review someone’s self-funded indie movie, trying to build up momentum so the filmmakers might get a distribution deal going. It’s an uncommon (albeit flattering) occurrence, to be sure, but not unheard of. In this case, the film was submitted by star/writer/producer/co-director Alex DeCourville, a Twitter follower whom I’ve never met in person. I might add that DeCourville shot the film in Ohio, well over a thousand miles from my typical Portland stomping grounds. (So there’s my disclosure out of the way.)

But when DeCourville sent me the trailer, that’s when I really knew that reviewing this one would be a unique challenge.

Reportedly, the film was made on a budget of $8,000. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie that cost so little to make. I don’t even think I’ve seen a live theatre play that cost so little to make. (Shakespeare in the park, maybe?) Hell, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen YouTube videos that cost more to produce.

Still, it speaks to the passion and work ethic of the cast and crew that they were able to make a feature-length anything out of so little. (The runtime is 83 minutes, which barely counts, but still.) I’d say that’s enough to earn the end result its day in court, even if I’m apparently the only one willing and able to serve as judge. Though to be perfectly honest, I have doubts as to whether I can even serve as a capable judge here — from the trailer alone, I could immediately tell that this movie would fall so far short of my typical standards that the usual rules can’t apply.

A very unique challenge indeed. Let’s begin.

DeCourville stars as Jason Stone — also the masked crimefighter “Science Boy” — a geek stereotype who wears thick glasses that have no lenses in them. In the prologue, Science Boy is introduced stopping a robbery in progress by inducing a heart attack. He never does this again at any point in the film.

In the next scene, Jason Stone is introduced bombing an audition for a play. How does “science nerd stereotype” translate into “aspiring actor”? Your guess is as good as mine. Seriously, the crux of this character is that he’s great at science, yet he doesn’t have a career or any hobbies related to science, and the contradiction is never once addressed.

Anyway, as the title implies, the plot kicks off when Science Boy is invited to a high school reunion. We then flash back to 2009, when Jason was still in high school. And the characters are all talking about biology class, though their classroom looks more equipped for wood shop. What’s worse, these are supposed to be teenagers of the late ’00s, and they’re all written for dated and threadbare stereotypes from the ’80s and ’90s. And that’s before Jason’s crush (Jackie Albright, later known as Evil Woman, played by Kayleigh Williams) is introduced in a slo-mo shot, covered in angelic light as her hair swirls in the breeze.

Not even ten minutes into the movie, and this is where I knew I was in trouble.

(Side note: Once again, I feel compelled to point to Anna and the Apocalypse and say “That’s the way to do it.” Hell, I could point to Detention, Booksmart, Love Simon, and at least half a dozen other coming-of-age dramedies in recent memory that did a better job of playing into teenage stereotypes while maintaining a 21st-century sensibility and giving the characters some depth.)

First off, the movie looks cheap as hell. I’m sorry, I hate to harp on about this, but the camerawork, the lighting, the costumes, the sets, the sound design… it’s impossible to ignore how cheaply this movie was made. It also doesn’t help that these actors were called upon to play adults and high school seniors in two different time periods ten years apart. I’ve seen full-fledged Hollywood productions — with world-class actors, top-tier makeup artists, and cutting-edge CGI at their disposal — try something similar and fail. This cast and crew never had a prayer of pulling it off.

More importantly, it’s established early and often that this is a story about characters who never really grew past high school. At the very least, it’s perfectly clear that Jason never got over the shame and the failures of his awkward teenage years. It makes sense that Jason would develop a superpowered crime-fighting alter ego as a power fantasy to help him escape from his teenage angst and make the world a safer place in the bargain. From Billy Batson to Peter Parker all the way up to Kamala Khan, it’s a classic tried-and-true superhero premise, and the notion of someone continuing it on through adulthood might theoretically make for a decent superhero satire.

Trouble is, nobody likes the person who never grew past high school. Nobody wants to be that person. It’s bad enough to hear from the person who peaked in high school and won’t shut up about the winning touchdown they scored ten or twenty years ago. No grown adult wants to hear about how much high school sucked for someone else, as if high school didn’t suck for a lot of people. Sure, this might have worked if Jason was someone we weren’t necessarily supposed to sympathize with — an antihero, for lack of a better label — but as an inspirational hero we’re supposed to root for, it doesn’t work.

Then again, the movie is predicated on the notion that Jason hasn’t really succeeded at anything with his life since high school. His big dreams have gone completely unfulfilled, and the outside world wasn’t anything like what he was promised. That’s a perfectly sympathetic place to be in, and it’s sadly all too relatable for anyone who graduated into a post-9/11 world.

This brings me to the main villain (Killjoy, played by Joseph Pleger). His superpower is that he can induce powerful waves of depression, even to the point of driving others to suicide. For a satire about the juvenile nature of the superhero power fantasy, that could work. For a dramedy about a man overcome with existential angst because of how little he’s accomplished in his adult years, it would be an amazing fit. But for an outright comedy in which everything and every character is played for the broadest possible laughs, it doesn’t make any sense.

Seriously, a supervillain that induces suicidal depression is in a movie with a perverted idiotic supporting character (namely John Mchoff, played by B.J. Halsall) whose EVERY SINGLE LINE is a gleeful masturbation “joke”. Make that make sense.

The movie never earns even the slightest degree of pathos. The characters are all so paper-thin and they’re all played so broadly that none of them register as actual human beings. It’s hard for me to care about their thoughts or their feelings when they’re all more or less treated as walking one-note punchlines. The other big problem is that where Jason is concerned, I don’t believe for a minute that he couldn’t have amounted to anything after high school.

Jason is clearly established as intelligent and hard-working, even before he got his superpowers. Yes, we’re told that he got denied a scholarship, but there’s no plausible reason as to why he got turned down. For that matter, there are any number of scholarships he could’ve been eligible for, and any number of colleges that would’ve accepted him. And again, why the hell did he pursue a career in acting when his passion and talent are so clearly in the fields of science?!

What might be worst of all, there’s an extended sequence at the half-hour mark in which Science Boy is pressed to list his accomplishments and he comes up empty. Even as a superhero, he’s utterly useless. As a comedic bit, the joke lost its flavor somewhere around Mystery Men twenty years ago. And of course it breaks the “escapist power fantasy” angle into a million pieces.

Basically put, the themes for this movie are all built on a foundation that makes no sense whatsoever.

So now I’m wondering if this could maybe work on the merits of “so bad it’s good”. Honestly, I don’t even think it works on those merits either. The thing about most “so bad it’s good” movies — Plan 9 from Outer Space, Manos The Hands of Fate, Birdemic, The Room, etc. — is that the comedy of those movies is unintentional. Every single one of those films was seriously made to be a deep and dramatic work of cinema. Even freaking Leonard: Part 6 tried to take itself halfway seriously as an espionage caper.

By comparison, it’s obvious that this film is trying to go for comedy. More than that, the filmmakers are clearly trying to make the comedy as broad as they possibly can. The actors are trying so hard to be funny, but the jokes and the characters are so played-out and lame, and the presentation so lackluster that every joke falls flat. Of course your mileage may vary (assuming you’re not the type of shithead who likes to heckle stand-up comedians), but I’d feel genuinely bad about myself for making fun of such earnest comedians who are bombing this hard.

It certainly doesn’t help that with a lot of the exchanges — most especially where the put-upon and socially clumsy Jason Stone is concerned — the point of the joke is that the conversation is awkward. It’s exceedingly difficult to make an awkward conversation that’s genuinely funny, as opposed to uncomfortable and tedious. The likes of Paul Feig and Judd Apatow have made whole careers out of this, and even they fail at it more often than they get it right. Again, these filmmakers had simply no hope of getting it right.

Could Science Boy’s High School Reunion have worked with a bigger budget? Well, I’m sure more money couldn’t have hurt, but the movie is fundamentally broken in so many ways that no crowdfunding campaign could’ve saved it. Yes, the basic notion of a social outcast dressing up as a superhero to escape his own existential angst, facing off against a supervillain who can inflict suicidal depression, is potentially a fantastic premise. Trouble is, it demands characters who are deep enough and relatable enough that they’re worth any degree of pathos.

More importantly, the premise and themes demanded a film far darker than the cast and crew were willing or able to go. From start to finish, it’s perfectly clear that everyone involved with this was at their most comfortable making a broad and brainless self-aware comedy. If they had played to their strengths and leaned into their limits, I’m sure this highly dedicated cast and crew could’ve made something fun and raunchy and irreverent. (For instance, if they tried making a college comedy in the vein of Animal House or Van Wilder, I’m sure it’d be great.) But they took on a premise far too ambitious for what they had, with mature themes they were not remotely equipped to tackle.

I’m sorry to say that I don’t see any way forward for this one. It could be a webseries on YouTube, maybe, but as a film or a DVD or an online stream worth actual money to see? No way.

Still, I have to commend DeCourville et al. for showing what they can put together with next to nothing. With this proof of concept and a better script, I’m sure they’ll have a much easier time coaxing money out of investors and crowdfunders. Better luck next time, guys.

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