Sometimes we look through the overlooked movies and find hidden gems, but Will Bigham’s debut, The A-List, isn’t one of those. As a comedy about the downside to popularity in high-school, it is too predictable with too few memorable moments to recommend to any but the most die-hard fans of teen movies.
I think the most interesting part of the direct to on-demand market is that sometimes, yoy might find a film that is fairly good and wonder about what went wrong. A film that failed to find its market. You can hope to be hip and find that cult classic that will build over time. But that isn’t the case with Will Bigham’s teen comedy, The A-List. It isn’t a poor film, and I can tell why it never found support for a studio backed theatrical release – it doesn’t have a bankable star who might draw teens into the theaters, for starters. It has a male lead in the type of film that usually has a female one these days. That should have been a notable twist on a well-worn tale, but it never quite quite gets around to doing anything about that twist that would make it interesting to, say, independent movie goers.
The A-List tells the story of the last two months of high school for Eric Schultz (Hudson Thames), a moppy-haired kid who has the distinction of being the most popular kid at a school that is totally devoted to the idea of popularity that the entire experience of adolescence seems to have been reduced one’s place in the pecking order. Student life is regulated by social media buzz. The the eponymous A-List mines blog mentions and twitter trends to rank the students by popularity. Popularity has made Eric a bit shallow, and he is currently on the outs with his long-time girlfriend, April (Deanna Lee Douglas) who appears to have moved onto another boy. Realizing that he will lose her for good once she goes to college, he decides try to enter the same school, only to find that he is one credit shy of graduation and would need to wait for another term to graduate.
Enter the school’s guidance counselor, the awkward and clearly neurotic Sylvia Martin (Elizabeth Bond). Like most Hollywood films, the glasses and frumpy hairstyle lets us know she’s an unmarriageable spinster, although she looks like a good-looking actress otherwise. She attended the same high school 20 years ago, but was never very popular. Eric’s mother ruled the roost back then and went out of her way to pick on her. She is still obsessing over her unpleasant experience, although it is difficult to feel too sorry for someone who has taken job which involves showing up at a high every day if one actually hated being in high school. When Eric shows up in her office, she uses this as the opportunity to live out her high school bucket list by extorting him to do the things that she always dreamed of doing and living vicariously through those experiences. That many of the items on her list involve fantasies specific to a teen-aged girl could be interesting, but we never seem to get to the point of taking that gender issue seriously. Instead, the movie focuses on Eric’s fall from popularity due to his increasingly erratic behavior. Eric never seems to learn what it is like to be a woman, but instead comes to understand that popularity is fleeting, an illusion without foundation, and perhaps he should just focus on the friends that matter.
The movie is Mean Girls combined with Never Been Kissed, updated so that the Burn Book from the former film is now an algorithm. I’m sure when the movie was pitched many years ago, those films weren’t far from anyone’s mind. Writer D.J. Halferty was only 19 when he wrote the first draft of the script, and it shows. In the six or seven years it took to actually make the film, it still feels like a watching a young adult novel written by a young adult whose most important experience of the world was high school. None of the adults in the film appear to be competent and are either so unprofessional that one wonders why they aren’t fired from teaching positions they clearly don’t want, or have personal issues that stem from carrying their high school trauma with them into middle age. It’s a world in which adults seem to want to play the same games as their children. The principal of the school (Mikel Chase) is obsessed with being invited to the parties of his popular students, offering to buy them beer and vodka. Twenty years after graduation as the school’s most popular girl, Eric’s mother (Katie O’Grady) is still too busy attending parties to be a parent for her son, and still bullies Sylvia when she meets her. The adults appear to be stunted somehow, which is a gag that gets old rather quickly. Sylvia eventually expresses regret for forcing Eric to humiliate himself again and again, but by that time, it is too late to redeem her character and pretend that we’re happy when her high school dream boyfriend becomes available again. The longer I watched, the more I started to resent the depiction of adults in the film.
But then adults are clearly not the target audience for the film. I suppose it might be enjoyed by teens who have decided that the popularity rat race is a little phony, but The A-List is too mainstream for the cool. That popularity isn’t everything and we may put too much emphasis on it in high school isn’t exactly news. As a message, it ranks up there with “Be true to yourself” for the “most well worn teen film moral award.” Perhaps if the film had decided to run more with the potential of the gender conflict between Sylvia’s desires and Eric’s need to be popular, and maybe asked why it is so humiliating for Eric to do the labors he is asked to do, and not have been too polite to risk offending anyone , it would have produced something worth talking about. As it stands, the film is way too nice to be noticed by anyone but the die-hard teen comedy fan.