Sunday, June 28, 2015

Perfect High (Brainstorm Media, Just Singer Entertainment, Sepia Films, Lifetime, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s Lifetime “world premiere” was something called Perfect High — note the absence of a definite article — written not by Christine Conradt but by Anne-Marie Hess and directed by Vanessa Parise, whose work I’d previously seen on the Lifetime movie #popFan (though this time she’s blessedly without the Twitter-style hashtag in front of her credit) but seemed to me to do a considerably better job here. It helped that she had stronger material; though on one level Perfect High (a marvelously punning title representing the “perfect” high school the protagonists attend — it’s called “Spectrum High” and its walls are done in rainbow-flag colors; in the U.S. a high school so decorated would probably be one of those ones specially set aside for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender students who were being so severely bullied they would need a special school where they could feel safe enough to concentrate on schoolwork and learn anything at all. Here in Canada, though it’s a bit unclear whether this time Canada is playing itself in a Lifetime movie or standing in for the U.S., it’s apparent that this is a regular large high school — and it’s big enough that it has a dance ensemble called the “Rhythm Chasers” that’s about to audition for a hugely important TV series called “Talent Scout.” The star of the troupe is Amanda (Bella Thorne), a nice white girl with blonde hair and the usual Lifetime dysfunctional family: her dad works for a company that has just been acquired by another one and is worried that this will mean he’ll be laid off; her mom is a stay-at-home housewife with a particular horror of her kids falling prey to illegal “drugs,” and her younger brother Robbie (Ryan Grantham, who on the basis of his appearance here is someone I would expect to be very hot when he gets older) has been diagnosed with ADHD and put on Ritalin. During a game in the lavishly equipped Spectrum High gym where the Rhythm Chasers are performing as an opening act and a modern-day substitute for cheerleaders, Amanda lands wrong after one of her leaps and injures her leg. For this she’s hospitalized briefly and sent home with a prescription for hydrocodone, the generic form of Oxycontin, and like such classic-era stars as Lionel Barrymore, Bela Lugosi and Edith Piaf, she starts using opiates medicinally but soon ends up addicted.

In her descent into drug-movie perdition Amanda naturally has the help of some of her high-school friends, including the vaguely Asian-looking Nate (Ross Butler), his sort-of girlfriend Riley (Daniela Bobadilla), and Carson (Israel Broussard, a bay-faced twink whom I found hot as hell even though he’s not my usual “type” — between Israel Broussard and Ryan Grantham this movie is a treasure trove of potential male sex symbols of the future!), an aspiring filmmaker who alone of Amanda’s friends shares her taste for classic old movies instead of stuff like The Night of the Living Dead. In one chilling scene Amanda shows up for a party with these three and they offer her booze, and when she points out that her doctor has warned her alcohol and her meds don’t mix, the other three say they’re all on something psychoactive and they drink all the time and don’t believe the warnings. Soon Amanda develops enough of a habit that she starts losing her coordination — there’s no sign of these “high school students” actually attending classes, but we see Amanda’s growing loss of control in her dance rehearsals, in particular her inability to keep up with the rest of the troupe and the slowness and clumsiness that creeps into her performances. Also Amanda’s habit gets too big for her official prescriptions to fill, so she and her friends start seeing a dope dealer — and when they can no longer afford official “prescription” drugs, their dealer starts giving them packets of stuff he says is Mexican hydrocodone, ground up into a powder for sniffing. What it really is is heroin — though even before this Amanda has seen some of her fellow stoners at parties smoking heroin by laying it on tinfoil, lighting a flame under it and snorting the smoke — and at the same party Amanda has seen Carson sneaking off with a former girlfriend just after he and Amanda had had sex for the first time. Amanda finally hits bottom when Riley overdoses — the four are in a car together and Carson is driving, and he doesn’t want to go to a hospital at first for fear they’ll be busted, but ultimately he relents and drives to the nearest E.R., but too late to save Riley’s life. But even that doesn’t stop the remaining trio from using; in one particularly pathetic scene (after Riley had stolen the money from Amanda’s fellow dancers to pay for her fatal fix and set it up in a way that Amanda would be blamed — all this after Amanda was finally fired from the dance troupe for being too stoned all the time to perform) she and Carson are begging their dealer for drugs they don’t have the money to pay for. The dealer says he’ll give them the drugs if Carson will pimp out Amanda to another guy in exchange — and Amanda is finally horrified enough to dump Carson and confess to her parents that she needs “help.” In some ways Perfect High is your usual clichéd high-school drug movie — I can remember seeing vaguely similar stories on the ABC Afterschool Special when I was the age of this film’s protagonists — but it has a couple of modern-day wrinkles that make it a fascinating index of how much attitudes have changed between then and now.

One is the sheer ubiquity of legal drugs; it seems that until the very end, every time Amanda’s parents or the school authorities notice that something is wrong with her, they take her to a therapist — only instead of actually talking to her about what might be going on with her life, the “therapist” merely reaches for his or her prescription pad and writes her a prescription from some other drug. In the 1960’s, when I was growing up, there was still a line of sorts between medical drugs and recreational drugs — though the line was blurring since tranquilizers had been widely introduced in the 1950’s and were being widely prescribed, especially to women using them to cope with what Betty Friedan called “the problem with no name.” (Ironically, while they themselves were heavy-duty users of illegal recreationals, the Rolling Stones were also recording songs like “Mother’s Little Helper” calling the older generation on its hypocrisy for damning young people for drug use while themselves consuming mind-altering substances and declaring their drugs “O.K.” because they came in amber bottles with doctors’ names on them.) With all Amanda’s friends on one medically prescribed drug or another, with her brother on Ritalin (in one scene she nervously fingers his bottle of it and wonders what new exciting high it would give her) and with “therapy” having disintegrated into just another, albeit legal, form of pill-pushing, it’s no wonder she doesn’t think “drugs” are a big deal — though she’s still heard enough stories of the Big Bad H to be shocked and disgusted when she finds out she’s been using, and become addicted to, heroin without even knowing it. (When she texts the dealer asking if the “Mexican hydrocodone” is really heroin, he texts back, “I thought you knew.”) The other thing that makes this movie a snapshot of 2015 instead of the late 1960’s is the teen characters’ heavy use of social media; though the script shied back from using actual names like Facebook or Twitter, the screen is filled with reports and photos the kids are texting each other, and social-media posts are used to tell us exactly what Amanda’s friends and acquaintances think of her and just where she is in the school’s pecking order. Indeed, the kids themselves are so obvious about what they post that if their parents logged on to social-media sites themselves they could trace what their kids are doing pharmacologically, socially and even sexually without having either to confront them or physically spy.

There’s something to the argument made by defenders of the NSA’s spying program that they’re not collecting any more information than people, especially young people who’ve grown up with the Internet and think social-media “sharing” is second nature, are voluntarily putting up on the Net for anyone with the right social-media accounts to see. (And these things are increasingly coming back to bite the posters; employers today routinely do social-media searches of potential employees, and people are losing out on jobs because embarrassing footage of themselves doing drugs, sex, graffiti, vandalism or other forms of youth rebellion are turning up on the Internet years after they were posted — and often, I suspect, after the people who posted them have forgotten about them.) I did ask myself whether we kids who went to high school in the late 1960’s would have been so forthcoming with details about our lives on social media and the Internet if these had existed yet, and my guess is that we were proud enough of our “rebel” streaks we probably would have (even though my Facebook posts from the 1960’s, had Facebook existed then, would if anything have probably been even duller than my Facebook posts today). I quite liked Perfect High as a movie, especially since director Parise (working with much stronger and more compelling material than she had on #popFan) and writer Hess don’t adopt the lab-rat detachment of so many of today’s filmmakers; instead they really make us care about the characters and indeed make us (make me, anyway), want to walk into the screen and tell them to stop being such nitwits — and that goes not only for the high-school kids but the authority figures who keep writing them prescriptions; when one more “counselor” or “therapist” reached for a prescription pad, I kept wanting to yell at them, “Idiot! The last thing Amanda needs is more drugs!” And as much fun as it was to watch the cute guys in this film, in all fairness the acting honors are taken by Bella Thorne as Amanda — even though, according to an post, she was cast at the last minute after all the other roles were filled: caught between intensely anti-drug parents (she knows that because, in a flashback, we’ve seen them come down on her brother mercilessly for having tried marijuana) and an alienating school situation in which drug users are really her only friends, she’s over-the-charts alienated even for the central character in a modern-day teen movie — and Thorne nails the character’s shifting moods and deep conflicts in a performance that I hope marks her for biggers and betters.