Judge Erich Asperschlager's big woodshop project was an ashtray. It didn't work out so well.
A comedy with class…shop class
When it comes to High School, there's no better way to for kids from different backgrounds to bond than to spend a Saturday together in detention. Just ask The Breakfast Club, and Pete Coggan's debut film Woodshop. Trading the quiet library setting for the hum of power tools, Woodshop takes a lot of cues from the John Hughes classic, while also building something of its own. Unfortunately, Coggan isn't able to decide what kind of movie he wants it to be, abandoning the sweet comedy it starts out as for an action-packed finale that pushes believability.
Facts of the Case
When Harvard-bound senior Chris (Scott Cooper Ryan, Scoundrels) accidentally causes an explosion in chemistry class, his punishment is a Saturday in woodshop detention, under the supervision of the no-nonsense shop teacher, Mr. Madson (Jesse Ventura, Predator). Although his best pal, Trey (Jonathan Davis, Abandon) is going to be there as well, so is borderline psychopath Gary Leudaking (Ross Marquand, I <3 vampires). When the bully pushes his detention-mates too far, Chris and Trey come up with a plan to stop him, recruiting stoner prodigy Craig (Keegan Ridgley), the stand-offish Wendy (Olivia Hendrick), and gearheads Thad (Nick Holmes) and Tony (Isaac McGuinness Todd) to help.
There seem to be certain universal truths about the high school experience. No matter their pre-defined groups, kids at that age are all…well, kids. They all suffer from self-doubt and are looking for some kind of acceptance. For some kids, that means sports, for others, A/V club. Even the loners get together by the fence to smoke. Made on location in Colorado, Woodshop understands how thin the line is between stoners, jocks, nerds, and slackers. Sadly, in real life those groups tend not to intermingle that much. That's why we have movies.
Once Woodshop gets through the plot contortions it takes to get Chris into detention, it settles down and lets the honest interactions between the teen characters run the show. Though the group is made up of stereotypes, the way they talk with each other is natural. They all feel real. So does their teacher, played by wrestler-turned-governor Jesse Ventura. He looks and acts like a real-life teacher, and not what Hollywood teachers tend to be. Movie teachers tend to be either optimistic do-gooders or sour disciplinarians. Mr. Madson, an ex-Army ranger, isn't handing out compliments and sage advice, but he isn't being a hard-ass for hard-ass' sake, either. He'd rather be fishing, but still takes seriously his responsibility to make sure his charges don't kill themselves or each other with the power tools. He's a definite step up from the enemy adult of John Hughes's movies. There's a half-baked subplot meant to give his character some depth, but otherwise, Ventura's character exists to keep the kids in line and the story moving forward.
While Woodshop is focused on the kids, it works well. The friendship between the nerdy Chris and his cool friend Trey is the heart of the movie. Even though Chris is as nervous and self-deprecating as Trey is cool and confident, I remember far unlikelier friendships from my high school days. The cast is made up of mostly newcomers, which works well for this movie. The performances are impressive across the board, elevating the weak moments of dialogue.
The movie uses a series of flashbacks to provide backstory for the kids. Some, like the pointed scene of former prodigy Craig being driven to drugs by his overbearing mother, or shy Wendy at a junior high dance, are there to make us look at the kids in a different way. Others, like Trey standing up for some unpopular kids, lays the groundwork for the final act.
Too bad that final act is where Woodshop falls apart. Beginning with an accident that sends one kid to the hospital, the movie takes a darker turn. Leudaking goes from menacing bully to outright felon and his schoolmates decide to fight back, turning the last third of the movie into a high-stakes caper. The way the plan is carried out is fun to watch, and the way everything is resolved is satisfying in a Hollywood way, but it undermines the realism of the early scenes.
Writer/director Pete Coggan shot Woodshop on a Red One high-definition camera, and it shows. Even though the movie is presented here at DVD resolution, there is a high level of detail, with natural colors and a range that goes from rich darks to bright whites. Too bad a high school woodshop isn't the best location to show it off. The 5.1 surround mix is pretty darn immersive for an indie movie. Dialogue is crisp and well-balanced with the original score co-written by Coggan. There are no bonus features.
Pete Coggan's first feature is a little too ambitious for its own good, trying to be a high-stakes caper movie even though it works best as a quiet character drama. It's worth watching, though, on the strength of the performances and the honest look at high school life presented in the first two-thirds of the film.
A few rough edges needed to be sanded off, otherwise not guilty!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: 42 Productions
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