Judge Bill Gibron felt schooled by this ineffectual coming-of-age comedy.
It's the ancient cinematic staple: coming of age. For many of us, high school is the place where we discover who we are, break out of our peer-pressure mold, and set our sights on the person we are bound to become. Of course, such clique slick narratives often reflect back on the beneficiaries, highlighting their weaknesses while wondering, aloud, who or what has spurred such inner investigations. There's almost always a happy ending, or at least a deeply introspective one, and the end result fuels a sense of nostalgia for days (and dates) gone by. Sadly, none of this veiled thoughtfulness appears in the goofy, groan-inducing General Education. Instead, we get a Central Casting arrested adolescent, doing his best to circumvent his parents' wishes while wondering, aloud, why the world wants to pick on his so-called privileged life. If he were Ferris Bueller, our unlikeable lead wouldn't need a day off. He'd deserve a kiss-off, instead.
You see, Levi Collins (Chris Sheffield, Transformers: Dark of the Moon) has one of these suburban existences that can best be called "charmed." His dad (Larry Miller, The Nutty Professor) has been pushing him to become a pro tennis player, and he has a scholarship lined up at a prestigious private college. While his mother (Janeane Garofalo, The Truth About Cats and Dogs) drowns her sorrows in booze, our BMOC plots his assured senior folly. In this case, it's not paying attention to science teacher Ms. Bradford (Elaine Hendrix, Beverly Hills Chihuahua 2) and failing her class. This puts his graduation in jeopardy, and thus, his future free ride. Making an arrangement with the principal (Susan McCarthy), he agrees to attend a 10-day make-up session in the summer. Of course, he has to keep this information from his parents, as well as cope with a comely coed (Maiara Walsh, Switched at Birth) and his chief on-court rival (Tom Maden, Parenthood).
Like the main character sitting at the center of the storyline, General Education is too self-congratulatory and smarmy smug for its own good. It thinks it's onto something hilarious and doesn't let up until it proves, unequivocally, that it's not. It wastes the talent of two fine stand-ups (Miller and Garofalo) while applying unnecessary quirk throughout the second and third acts. As a fellow critic pointed out, it's a lot like a smart-alecky jerk who sits at the front of the class, brown-nosing the teacher mercilessly, until it finally loses interest and decides to irritate everyone instead. While Sheffield is fine in the role, his character, as written, is almost impossible to embrace. His only identifiable issues—he really, really, really, doesn't like playing tennis—is introduced and then tossed aside so that we get more mindless interaction among the various campus archetypes, as well as hints at a film which actually embraces its darker, more dysfunctional side.
In fact, this film would have been better had director Tom Morris and his writing partners Elliot Feld and Jaz Kalkat avoided the commercial potential they saw here and actually told a true, realistic story. How kids cope with parental pressures, the ups and downs of adolescences, and the eventual realization that problems perceived are never as problems in truth could make for an above-average entertainment experience. Instead, we get the graduated glumness of a Parker Lewis Can't Lose outtake. We are supposed to support Levi. All we end up doing is despising him. His smarmy sense of entitlement, attached to a narrative that never quite knows what to do with its otherwise dour components, chafes against any real critical aesthetic. You'd have to dismiss a great deal to enjoy his exploits, and even then, the lessons learned are limp and rather lifeless.
As for the technical aspects of this release, Well Go USA does the best it can with what it's been given. Morris is no auteur, and his pedestrian style is represented well in this colorful, detail filled 2.35:1/1080p presentation. There are no flaws or transfer issues, just a mediocre movie given the best filmic facelift possible. As for the sonic situation, things are a bit better. The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix provides a nice combination of crystal clear dialogue and spatial ambience. Even better, there's no volume disparity like that in other indie features. Everything is well balanced. Finally, the added content is interesting, if not definitive. There's a commentary featuring Kalkat, Feld, Morris, producer Kevin Liang, and sound editor Tim Hoogenakker. It's filled with backstage info, if little else. There's also a middling making-of, a collection of outtakes, and a trailer. Nothing too sensational, but not too shabby either.
For most of us, high school is a source of continuing consternation. Even as we age, the decisions we made decades before seem to add (and frequently subtract) from what we envision our quality of life should have/could have been. General Education won't provide any more insight into the issue. All it will do is irritate and aggravate.
Guilty. A glum, miserable experience.
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