Often notable for the ways in which its naive, teenage protagonist's slowly eroding positive outlook seems to be duplicated by the director himself, "Choose Connor" is a movie about politics and disillusionment made by a first-time filmmaker barely out of his teens. This film, in which a middle school-age wannabe politician finds out about how dirty and disappointing the world is, originated as a script written when actor-turned-debuting-director Luke Eberl was just 17, and went into production when he was 20.
Those who go into movies seeking insight (which, of course, we all should) should probably check their expectations at the door. To his credit, Eberl neither lectures nor presumes to completely grasp
the consequences of his characters' actions, but this loss-of-innocence tale is naturally predicated more on cliches than lived experience, and as a result veers perilously close to after-school-special territory.
Not even old enough to have graduated film school, but intuitive enough to know that he needed to hitch his wagon to a strong director of photography, Eberl employed Jim Timperman, whose super 16mm images, when not showily trying to pack entire scenes into needless single takes, always pick up on just the right emotions in each scene. It also helps that he has a dedicated lead actor here, former child-star moppet Alex Linz, who convincingly plays the fresh-faced, eager 15-year-old Owen, whose likeability and ambition is co-opted by local congressman Lawrence Connor (Steven Weber), who brings him onboard as his teen campaign spokesman after meeting him at his junior-high graduation. Meanwhile, Owen becomes friends with Connor's troubled teenage nephew, Caleb (Escher Holloway), whose sullen glances, eternal toothpick chewing, and collection of creepy homemade puppets and expressive photo collages cloak an even darker secret.
There are moments here and there when Eberl does get at some stinging observations about small-town politics (like when Owen hesitantly adds a "Go Tigers!" to the end of his graduating speech to buy a smattering of applause, or the nicely composed, intimate creepiness of a suburban soiree of local bigwigs), but this is mostly a broad affair, and one that contains little of the sharp nuance or metaphor of Alexander Payne's more satirical "Election." Linz is splendidly ordinary at the beginning of the film, nicely playing Owen's obsequiousness to Connor, but the more we find out about the devilish Connor, the histrionic heights of which I won't reveal here, the less the young actor, or the director, knows where to go.
It doesn't help that Weber seems not only unctuous but also certifiably terrifying from frame one (he's one hollow-eyed stare away from Travis Bickle territory), and that Holloway seems cast more for his perfectly coiffed boy-band beauty than for any plausibly conveyed inner torment. A parallel plot involving Caleb's overt attraction and attempted seduction of Owen, complete with doffed shirts and pot initiations, doesn't really complement the main storyline in any meaningful way, so Caleb is left something of a narrative casualty.
The "politics" of "Choose Connor" never go much deeper than some chatter about a Clean Air Referendum, but at least such concerns make sense on the level of this film's discourse. Owen is interested in "how the world works," and apparently so is Eberl, who might not have much to offer us that we haven't seen before, but at least his tone is searching and rueful rather than definitive. It's certainly less preening and self-involved than last year's "Fat Girls," also directed by a 22-year-old, but what can we truly take from "Choose Connor"?
It's all imagery recognizable not from life but from movies: at the climax Connor's final speech is intercut with rote shots of Owen running, running, running breathlessly away down streets and parking lots. Certainly filmmakers much older have gone in for the same sorts of cliches, but it's nevertheless clear that Eberl has as much growing up to do as Owen.
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and the managing editor and staff writer of the Criterion Collection.]