Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Good Student (Screen Media Films, 2006)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Our “feature” last night was The Good Student, originally released in 2006 as Mr. Gibb — after the name of the central character, small-town teacher Ronald Gibb (Tim Daly); one wonders if giving him the same last name as the Bee Gees was just one of the odd little pieces of whimsy Adam Targum inserted into the script. The blurb on the DVD box for this one promised a nicely sleazy Lifetime-esque thriller: “When Ally (Hayden Panettiere), a popular teen and local celebrity, goes missing, her small suburban town erupts in panic. Mr. Gibb (Tim Daly), her dorky teacher with a known infatuation with her, is the last person to see Ally alive and becomes the major suspect.” Instead what Targum and director David Ostry actually came up with is an engagingly loopy comedy in which they continually underplay situations that in a Lifetime movie would be the occasions for scenery-chewing melodrama.

Ally (short for Allyson) isn’t actually kidnapped until about one-third of the way through the movie, and until then it’s a nice little small-town comedy (the location work was done in Poughkeepsie, New York) in which Gibb — who doesn’t look all that dorky; he’s not drop-dead gorgeous but he is attractive — is shown as so dedicated a history teacher that in order to teach a lesson on the Gettysburg Address he actually comes to class dressed as President Lincoln, complete with stovepipe hat and outrageously fake beard. It’s explained that he’s had a lifelong fascination with American history in general and Lincoln in particular (at this point I joked that he was so obsessed with Lincoln that he was going to find a country where there were still slaves so he could go there and free them), and he also has a flaming crush on Ally, who’s the daughter of “Honest Phil” Palmer (William Sadler), local used-car salesman who uses his cheerleader daughter in his commercials much the way Cal Worthington used animals. (Sadler’s performance, one of the highlights of the film, approaches genius in his rendition of the sliminess of his character.)

Mr. Gibb is frustrated at the thickness of most of the students in his class — particularly Brett Mullen (John Gallagher, Jr.), Ally’s on-again, off-again boyfriend — while at the same time he ignores the one (apparently) genuinely smart student he’s supposed to be teaching, Amber Jinxs (Sarah Steele), a dark-haired young woman (Ally, of course, is blonde) who goes around with a camera and manages to photograph the other principals of the story in singularly embarrassing poses. She’s the one who takes the picture of Ally kissing Gibb in gratitude — he gave Ally an “A” on her test (he insists she deserved it but that’s not the impression we get from what we’ve seen so far) and also gave her a ride home (in a huge Dodge Ram pickup he just bought from Ally’s father’s lot, paid for with a cash stash we later learn was an insurance settlement after an accident that killed Gibb’s wife) after Brett stranded her at school, and dropped her off moments before she was kidnapped — and Amber had earlier joked, when Gibb told her the upcoming test would be worth 20 percent of the grade for the course, “Is Ally’s ass going to be one of the questions?”

In this delightfully loopy movie, we first get the impression that Amber is the typical female nerd, proud of her academic skills and pissed off that her teacher is ignoring her in favor of the girl with the hot bod; later we see her at “Video Treats,” where Gibb is renting a straight porn film called Young, Blonde and Ready! which he’s selected because its protagonist resembles Ally; and still later we learn that Amber is having an affair with “Honest Phil” Palmer and stalks out of his house in a hissy fit when she catches Phil having sex in the bathtub with Amber’s own mother (played by a blonde actress who doesn’t look in the slightest like Sarah Steele). The Good Student is a film that takes a very mordantly cynical attitude about love and sex, from the fellow teacher who boasts to Mr. Gibb that he readily trades good grades and college recommendations to nubile young female students in exchange for sex (and assumes Gibb is doing the same) to the affair between the sleazy used-car salesman and the person we think is the “good girl” on campus.

It’s also got some nice satire of the whole obsession with missing kids; when Ally is kidnapped lemonade stands spring up in her benefit, a solid wall of yellow ribbons appears on every locker in school, and Phil Palmer responds to the disappearance of his daughter by announcing that he’s going to put every car on his lot on sale at a discount until she’s returned safely. In the middle of all this Gibb drifts into an affair with his next-door neighbor, Holly Cooper (Paula Devicq) — who for my money is a lot hotter than Hayden Panettiere (she has a penchant for going braless and wearing T-shirts that give us a nice look-see at her nipples poking through) as well as past the age of consent and a much more grounded human being and therefore a more suitable sex (and romance) partner for Our Hero. There’s also a fascinating screen presence in actor Brian Anthony Wilson (presumably using his middle name so no one gets him confused with the leader of the Beach Boys), who plays the lead detective on the police’s investigation of Ally’s disappearance, and is appropriately named Moon since his head rather looks like the moon.

Director Ostry and writer Targum don’t seem all that interested in who kidnapped Ally — we get a couple of insert shots showing her bound in a closet filled with mops and other cleaning implements, leading us to think that the rather twitchy school janitor is holding her — but at the end, as Gibb and Holly are fleeing the town and driving to New York City, Gibb’s hand is shown letting go a lock of blonde hair from the window of his truck as he’s driving, and his voiceover (Tim Daly narrates the whole movie and Targum’s writing here is nice and as challengingly quirky as the rest of the film) talks about his dual nature and his evil side, and we’re obviously supposed to think he really did kidnap Ally even though his motives, as well as her whereabouts during her captivity, remain a mystery. We’re evidently supposed to read this ending much the way as the accidental death of the nerdy corporate executive’s son in Joseph Heller’s Something Happened (to my mind Heller’s masterpiece and a much better book than the overrated Catch-22) that pushes the protagonist to become aggressive and take control of his life at last — but thou the ending is a bit of a cheat, and the film overall nervously balances itself between comedy and drama in a way that rarely works, overall The Good Student is a charming little piece of work, a minor film (it had the hint of a theatrical release but probably made most of its gross on DVD sales) but a nice and quite entertaining one — even if Charles noted the peculiar anomaly that in a movie about teenagers made and set in 2006, no one has a personal computer, an iPod or even a cell phone!