Anchor Bay // 2009 // 95 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Rogers (Retired) // December 26th, 2011
"Everything worth anything is both terrifying and beautiful"
-- That Annoying Kid in Poetry Class
I signed up to review Tanner Hall because I'm a David Fincher slut and I wanted to see more of Rooney Mara before his remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was released. Her turn in the A Nightmare on Elm Street reboot left a bad taste in my mouth and her scant screen time in Fincher's most recent The Social Network was far from a good gauge. So why not start with Mara's first legitimate lead role? After having seen Tanner Hall it seems like it would be too easy to simply just sum it up as a female version of Dead Poet's Society infused with some hipster kitsch...but it is a coming-of-age tale set in a New England private school and it does have a twinkly indie/alt soundtrack and pseudo-philosophical observational narration...So it's not far off really.
But where Dead Poet's Society traffics in themes about liberal individualism in the face of staunch conservatism, Tanner Hall is more concerned about defining the meaning of friendship and adolescence while showing the intricacies of both in the most boring of ways.
Plus, you know, there's no poetry.
Fernanda (Rooney Mara, Youth in Revolt) is entering her senior year at Tanner Hall, a private school for rich kids in New England. Her core group of friends consists of Lucasta (Amy Ferguson, Garden State), a tomboy who is socially awkward and inwardly troubled about her own sexuality; sexually charged Kate (Brie Larson, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World), who spends more time flirting with her English teacher than studying her books; and Victoria, a manipulative 'friend' from Fernanda's past who transfers to Tanner Hall and acts as a catalyst for change among these girls. What begins as harmless rebellion turns into something much more volatile as these girls must confront the reality of adulthood and responsibility. Fernanda must examine her own fractured world as she begins a dangerous relationship with Gio (Tom Everett Scott, An American Werewolf in Paris), a married man and soon-to-be father.
The first thing I noticed while watching Tanner Hall was the beautiful cinematography that exudes warmth and beauty in the crumbling facade of a stuffy New England private school. It's a juxtaposition of images expertly crafted that also begins to reflect the themes of youth and reality the main characters toil under. It's a very refined approach to filmmaking that eventually gives way to certain stylistic flourishes, as the characters transcend into self-discovery and realization.
But a film can't just look pretty, it has to have some substance. And this is where the film is the weakest. Tanner Hall constantly tries to make profound statements on the torturous and disenfranchised qualities of youth in a growing age of sexuality and isolation. But it's all rather repetitive and half baked. One issue with the narrative is that it drops you into this group of friends that have already been together for years and expects the viewer to find their way through the complicated framework of these relationships with no real introduction or perspective. While the film does slowly flesh out these bonds on its way to developing these four female characters, the first act still suffers from making the viewer feel like an outsider to these friends.
The four lead performances are also relatively strong for the majority of the film with Georgia King's snooty and manipulative Victoria being a strong point. Rooney Mara turns in a rather lackadaisical performance as Fernanda. Mara undoubtedly has a certain enigmatic presence to her because of her cherubic face and innocent stare yet the role doesn't demand anything from the actress that we haven't seen from countless other actresses in countless other hipster kitsch films. Mara has the skill but she just needs a better role to shine. The fact that Chris Kattan and Tom Everett Scott are still working in film is also shocking.
But it's not the actors' faults that the screenplay goes to no great length to define these characters past a few cliché traits like self mutilation and closeted lesbianism. There isn't a single character that isn't one dimensional or some kind of lame archetype. When it gets to a point where you're writing a screenplay for a bona fide motion picture, and not just fan fiction for the Laurell K. Hamilton fan message board, you should maybe think about incorporating characterizations that are less shallow than a puddle on a hot summer day. And it's a shame because both Tatiana von Furstenberg and Francesca Gregorini have obvious skill and vision behind the camera, they just have absolutely zero imagination or originality when you ask them to put words to a piece of paper.
And that is what's really at the heart of the film, what makes all the beautiful photography and performances crumble; that we've seen all of this before in far better films with far less pretentious dialogue and hipster ambitions. What's worse is that none of these plot lines end up going anywhere. There's no real resolution or profundity by the end of the film. It's nothing new to have a villainous British bitch who rules the school, it's no longer shocking or incendiary to show a taboo relationship between a young girl and an older man with an impressive record collection. I don't like main characters who are condescending and vain and spit out pseudo-intellectual bullshit disguised as profound statements on the universe and life in general. Does anyone really?
Strip away anything that might make Tanner Hall a relatively enjoyable film with both gravitas and humor and all you have is a generic and conceited framework for a better film. Most importantly, the film makes the cardinal mistake of being just plain boring, and I'm not one to easily get bored. I'll sit through 4 hour long black and white Japanese films and never blink an eye, I'll devour Berlin Alexanderplatz in one sitting and only need to stop to shove something down my throat and relieve myself. Tanner Hall, however, is just so mind numbingly boring that it was a struggle to finish. And for that, you should probably just let this one pass you by. There is a reason that this film sat on a shelf for as long as it did and only just now made it's way onto home video with Mara's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo upon us.
Thankfully, Anchor Bay has given us a stellar 1.78:1/1080p high definition transfer that helps the positive aspects of Tanner Hall (Blu-ray) shine. The vibrancy and warmth of the film's color palette is gorgeously reproduced, allowing the viewer to bath in the sumptuous set design and picturesque architecture of it's stodgy New England setting. Clarity of detail is also resoundingly good. The only flaw to the transfer is that there are times when the level of grain on the image goes well past what one expects from the film medium. But these instances are few. The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio track is not on the same par with the video only because Tanner Hall is not exactly an aural masterpiece. What the track does well though is to crisply reproduce the dialogue of the characters and sonically enhance the annoying hipster soundtrack of the film.
Where this Blu-ray falters is in the special feature department though. All we are given on this disc is a trailer for the film and an incredibly dry and boring commentary track with writers/directors Tatiana von Furstenberg and Francesca Gregorini.
Tanner Hall is not only insipid and condescending, it's also unoriginal and boring. These are not good qualities for any film. Even though this Blu-ray highlights the skill apparent behind the camera, it still doesn't fix the massive flaws.
Review content copyright © 2011 Patrick Rogers; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 95 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Official Site