Dimension Films // 1994 // 82 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // June 17th, 2005
She wasn't bad...just terribly misunderstood.
Reform School Girl is the second entry into Showtime's mid-'90s Rebel Highway film series I've viewed on DVD in a week's time (following Joe Dante's Runaway Daughters), and saying that it's the better of the two films still doesn't make it very good. It doesn't take the same jokey tone of Daughters -- my main complaint about that film -- but really isn't able to hold down an identity of its own. It gives a better indication of what the Rebel Highway series could have been, but ultimately still fails as a film -- it turns out that faithfully remaking a dopey movie only results in another dopey (albeit newer) movie.
The film, directed by Jonathan Kaplan (who would go on to revisit the "girls in prison" genre five years later with the more mainstream Brokedown Palace), tells the story of Donna Murphy (Aimee Graham, 100 Girls), a do-gooder who gets caught up in a bad case of wrong-place-wrong-time when she goes joyriding with the town rebel (there's always a town rebel; in this case, he's played by a pre-Friends Matt LeBlanc). The two teens end up in a hit-and-run, with the rebel taking off and leaving Donna at the scene. When she's unable to provide any details about the man behind the wheel in court (she doesn't even know his last name, only referring to him as "Vince"), the judge sentences her to a stint in a girls' reform school. From there, it's all troubled young ladies, sadistic guards, food fights, and same-sex trysts; when the evil Warden Turnbull (Carolyn Seymour, Congo) enlists Donna to compete in the upcoming track meet (she really wants to beat that rival school this year!), she's forced to choose between being true to herself or getting a chance at freedom.
Kaplan takes the right approach to the material, treating it pretty seriously and resisting the urge to steer it towards camp; the result plays more like a tribute to the 1957 original (and all of those B-grade drive-in pictures of the era...that's right, I said "pictures") than a parody. He doesn't just stop there, though, and also makes Reform School Girl into an homage of the women-prison flicks pioneered by Roger Corman in the 1970s (movies like The Big Bird Cage, Women in Cages, and Caged Heat). Unfortunately, Kaplan (and Bruce Meade's script) doesn't go far enough in either direction -- it's not melodramatically sincere enough to do the '50s justice, but doesn't deliver the exploitative trash we expect from the Corman films (the guards aren't nearly cruel enough, the fights are decidedly tame, and there's not a single shower-room violation!). There's a girl/girl love scene that's plenty exploitative, to be sure, but it's more of the late-night-cable-soft-core variety; the fact that it goes on waaaay too long also leads me to believe it's there more to pad the running time (same goes for the climactic track meet that unfolds in what feels like real time; who decided it was a good idea to end a Women's Prison movie with a relay race?) than anything seedy. Kaplan, in keeping with the spirit of the '50s original, should have kept the lesbian stuff implied -- laying it all out there, as he does, confuses the tone even further.
The actors are game and intuitive enough to play the material straight, but most are wrong for their parts. Aimee Graham comes off as a cross between Angela Bettis (May) and Kate Bosworth (Beyond the Sea); she's got some of the former's edge and some of the latter's wholesomeness, but (like the film itself) not enough of either to make it all work. Matt LeBlanc, who must have made Reform School Girl just before Friends blew up, is a victim of his later work. He was so good as Joey Tribbiani that it's now impossible to see him as anything else -- his performance here feels like one of Joey's trademark Bad Acting Gigs. The rest of the cast pretty much flounders, too; the girls at the reform school are too sweet and soft for the kind of sweaty danger that the story needs, and the gals playing the guards are little more than confused extras with dialogue.
Dimension Home Video's release of Reform School Girl is remarkably similar to the Runaway Daughters disc -- both are presented full frame (to be fair, it's the original television aspect ratio and not something to be criticized), both look and sound pretty shoddy, and both are delivered without a single extra (save for the "other discs from Dimension" trailer that pops up automatically when you try and play the movie). I'm sick and tired of asking myself why the studio -- or any studio, for that matter -- bothers releasing a film with little demand and unceremoniously treats it like crap, so I'm not going to in this case. I'll just curse them under my breath a little.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Dimension Films
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 82 Minutes
Release Year: 1994
MPAA Rating: Rated R