Director: John Stalberg
Runtime: 99 minutes
The theatrical release of John Stalberg’s stoner comedy “High School” has been a long time coming. The film premiered at Sundance Film Festival way back in January 2010, and after making the rounds at film festivals (including Austin Film Festival that fall), the film finally hit theaters Friday. Many films with such a long turnaround are often not worth viewing at all, but “High School” is a pleasurable exception to that rule. Stalberg delivered a funny, well-cast and smartly observed high school comedy with a massive dose of “Cheech and Chong” mixed into its DNA.
Matt Bush plays straitlaced honor student Henry Burke, whose status as class valedictorian is thrown into jeopardy when his principal (Michael Chiklis) announces school-wide drug tests just after Henry smokes a joint with estranged friend Travis (Sean Marquette). Travis and Henry come up with a haphazard plan to cause the entire school to fail the test, stealing THC crystals from local drug kingpin Psycho Ed (a wonderfully veiny Adrien Brody) and making pot brownies for the school bake sale. From there, chaos ensues.
A lot about “High School” is predictable, from its story line to many of its jokes, but truly surprises in its casting. Adrien Brody is hilariously twitchy as Psycho Ed, and he’s the film’s best wild card, sparingly but precisely deployed whenever “High School” feels like kicking things up a notch. However, no one is more out of their comfort zone more than Michael Chiklis, who delivers a truly transformative performance as the strict and proper Principal Gordon. Chiklis has made a career out of playing steely tough guys, but here he’s effeminate, insecure and perpetually flustered. It’s a great comedic showcase for Chiklis, and he shares some hilarious scenes with Colin Hanks, who plays an assistant principal. Hanks is funny as well, giving his character an air of sheer, infectious joy during the scenes he is high, which earns him some of the film’s biggest laughs.
“High School”’s most consistent weak link is its subject matter. The best stoner comedies subtly glorify drug use without becoming preachy or long-winded. Especially in its early moments, “High School’s” script can easily sound like the ramblings of someone you knew in high school who now has dreadlocks and a van. Some of the film’s dialogue is cringe-worthy — excessive dribble comprised of marijuana slang — the soundtrack is thuddingly obvious and Stalberg fumbles the comedic timing of a few moments.
However, as the film goes on and the stakes raise for Henry and Travis, “High School” clicks into gear and becomes absolutely hilarious. Once the entire population of the school is sufficiently stoned, the comedy ramps up, and Stalberg has an inspired sense for how the brownie-fueled lunacy unfurls over the course of the long school day. Stalberg’s handling of Henry and Travis’ friendship is warmly observant, detailing how age and time can drive people apart just as easily as it brings them back together, and Marquette and Bush’s strong chemistry lends to the momentum the film builds throughout its second half.
“High School” is far from a perfect film, but it’s still full of genuinely funny moments and performances. Even when the dialogue is weak and the plot full of holes, the laughs don’t let up, and that’s what keeps the film watchable. It’s been a long wait for “High School”’s theatrical release, and it’s a flawed but worthwhile alternative to the explosion-heavy summer fare.