While featuring a promising cast of on-the-rise newcomers and comedy veterans, a strong production design, plus a visual aesthetic that proves digital cinematography can be warm and capture light in a pleasing autumnal manner, the one-dimensional indie flick “Tanner Hall,” has almost nothing else to redeem it.
Dressed in a litany of boarding school girl cliches, the Francesca Gregorini and Tatiana von Furstenberg-directed film would normally feel like a send-up of this quote unquote genre if it didn’t take itself so seriously and wasn’t so painfully sincere. Telegraphed from a mile away, every character’s story arc is identifiable immediately; you know exactly where these predictable, groan-worthy narratives are going and not one of them surprises. And every stereotypical cliche of what “drama” you might find in an all-girls boarding school is there, just ripe for exploiting, and the filmmakers unsubtly do their best to do just that.
The awkward girl who’s clearly grappling with her sexuality and lesbian tendencies? Check. The Lolita-like student with the unhealthy crush on her teacher? Check. The sexually unfulfilled teacher who would love to tap that nubile, almost-18 ass? Check. The girl who cuts herself? Check. The girl who has an unhealthy crush on the older, tall, dark and mysterious man? Check. Only one boy their age going to school on campus? Check. The meddling, harpy-like sociopath new girl who tries to infiltrate the film’s lead clique with her bad-girl tendencies? Check, check, check. If you have this disc in a DVD player, you’ll be excused if you toss it out early and don’t care how it all turns out (don’t worry, whatever you guessed, you guessed correctly). If only there was a suicide to complete the full cliche set, but alas.
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Starring Rooney Mara, Georgia King, Brie Larson and Amy Ferguson, plus Tom Everett Scott, Chris Kattan and Amy Sedaris and set in a semi-posh, New England all-girls boarding school, “Tanner Hall” focuses on the would-be complexities of adolescent life, but struggles to communicate anything remotely insightful about those lives. The directors met in college and did their stints in boarding schools so the film can evoke a nostalgic dreaminess, but it’s an ephemeral feeling that they cannot use to their benefit.
Centering on the beginning of the school year and the reunion of the clique that includes Fernanda (Rooney), Kate (Larson) and Lucasta (Ferguson), their world is turned on its side when Victoria (King) arrives; the pouty British bad-girl who has a immature rock-star-like mom and appears to be in the mood to follow in her footsteps. Because she willingly bucks the system, Victoria soon becomes the popular girl while Fernanda, the lead and the ostensible heart of the picture, broods with frustration as teenagers are wont to do. Meanwhile, the teachers (Sedaris and Kattan) try and keep order while the girls go about their lives full of angst, boredom and frustration at the fact that there are very few boys around for them to crush on. The picture’s first conflict is the arrival of Gio (Tom Everett Scott), the husband of one of Fernanda’s mother’s friends. His wife eight months pregnant, Gio conveniently arrives to sign Fernanda out of school for weekend trips where he takes her record shopping, drives around in his cool car and basically does everything that he can to avoid spending time with his expectant wife (groan). Concurrently, the manipulative and canny Victoria is making everyone’s lives difficult, planting seeds of insecurity, messing with minds and when the prying brat learns of Fernanda’s relationship with Gio… well, you can see where that all heads.
What’s worse, the film’s pedestrian intentions are announced immediately. The picture begins with an obnoxious “Dear Diary”-like voiceover that continues throughout the film. While the platitudes aren’t quite “I got my period today,” or “Janie’s being such a jerk” or “why doesn’t Nigel love me like I love him?,” they’re only slightly less noxious. The directors do try to play with tone, introducing comedic elements from SNL alum Chris Kattan and Amy Sedaris (the married schoolteacher couple who run the school), but most of these we’re-having-married-sex-issues are too ridiculous and provide little respite from the all-too-familiar coming-of-age tale.
Music only hurts its case further. Featuring a score that sounds like it was plucked from “Seventh Heaven,” and a soundtrack of toothless, wimpy wannabe-cool indie pop (Stars, Sufjan Stevens-like faygolas) — sonically, the filmmakers just pour on the I’m-so-misunderstood-and-unloved teenage musical angst. It could all come off a compilation album entitled “Vaginas Without Families.” Oh, and there’s a gag-inducing moment when the older guy says to the innocent younger girl, “Oh, you don’t know this band? We’ve got to take you record shopping!”
While “The Social Network” actress Rooney Mara impressed David Fincher enough to nab the coveted lead in his next picture “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo,” there’s very little in “Tanner Hall” that illustrates her chops. Since ‘Social Network’ also showed little of Rooney’s skills, one would assume her talents might be in evidence in her other pictures but “Tanner Hall,” is certainly not one of them. It doesn’t help that each character is a poorly written stereotype, with the supposed soul of the film, Fernanda, being, well, just boring and flat. In trying to squeeze in every boarding school movie cliche, each represented by its own separate character, (the bad girl, the annoying girl, the shy girl), the filmmakers are never able to travel deep into any one character; each one, like the film, is a superficial portrait.
If you thought a film like the somewhat similar “The Virgin Suicides” was vapid and invidious, you’ll find the picture especially irritating, like a rash. Or maybe a yeast infection. If you thought that the Sofia Coppola film was a beautifully dressed portrait of teenage alienation, you’ll think this is the After School Special version of that idea. Buyer beware and stay far away. [D-]