Despite releasing a retrospective documentary about her astounding eight-decade career, Rita Moreno shows no signs of slowing down. The 90-year-old EGOT winner has reinvented herself many times over the years, but she dons yet another beguiling disguise as a psychopathic physics teacher in the dark teen comedy “The Prank.” Her sleek black Cadillac may be an obvious nod to Cruella de Vil, but Moreno’s severe Mrs. Wheeler looks more like a Bond villain in her precise grey bob and black leather gloves.Moreno is clearly having the time of her life, but unfortunately her juicy performance is the only perk of “The Prank.”
Most of “The Prank” revolves around two squeaky-voiced teenagers: floppy-haired overachiever Ben (Connor Kalopsis) and ditzy-but-brilliant slacker Tanner (Ramona Young), broadly sketched types we’ve seen a million times. The outsized caricatures work when it comes to Mrs. Wheeler, whose slight stature collides playfully with the outsized fear she instills in her students. But the tired Gen Z tropes and cheesy one liners suck the life out of the rest of the movie.
Where Ben wakes up early for a strict morning routine of green juice and triple checking his homework, Tanner sleeps in late and knocks back a days-old energy drink before school. Where Ben has his heart set on a college scholarship to the school his recently deceased dad went to, Tanner is content to skip college and “wait for climate change to wipe us all out.” They’re an odd couple with wildly different priorities, and nonsensical mayhem is about to ensue.
When Mrs. Wheeler threatens to fail everyone in Ben’s physics class unless a recent test cheater comes forward, Ben panics about how the wrinkle in his GPA could affect his scholarship. So, as any high schooler would for a teacher they hate, Tanner devises a plan to frame Mrs. Wheeler for murder. Her harebrained scheme involves a series of missing students, some supposedly advanced computer coding, and a manipulation of the high school rumor mill via the livestream app Twitch. Though her jumbled explanation of her master plan is supposed to make her sound smart, it feels overly complicated for a simple plot point.
After a few false starts the rumor actually takes hold, and suddenly the entire town is demonizing Mrs. Wheeler. In the movie’s funniest running gag, even the local reporters all had (and hated) Mrs. Wheeler, and jump to increasingly wild conclusions in their blatantly biased reporting. So much for journalistic integrity.
Another satisfying element is the slow build “is she or isn’t she?” surrounding Mrs. Wheeler’s potential guilt or innocence. At every turn, Moreno seems to be juggling both possibilities, keeping the audience guessing. Her impassioned pleas of innocence and dedication to teaching casts doubt on the natural conclusion the tone of the movie foreshadows. Once her husband dies and she’s forced into retirement, she becomes even more sympathetic. Is she simply a strict physics teacher who wants the best for her students, or a secret serial killer who hides frozen heads in the storage closet? Only time will tell.
By the time “The Prank” shifts from zany teen comedy to full-blown horror movie, however, it’s too late. The slow reveal is a fun tension valve, but Mrs. Wheeler’s last stand comes with far too little explanation (and far too little blood) to offer satisfying release. Moreno works the leather gloves and cat eye sunglasses to inspire intrigue, but she doesn’t the wildly unhinged villain backstory monologue that she so deserves. Moreno is too good; we’re left wanting more Mrs. Wheeler and way less neurotic teenagers.
“The Prank” was directed by Maureen Bharoocha, who cut her teeth as a segment director on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” and recently debuted the well-reviewed arm-wrestling comedy “Golden Arm,” which was set to premiere at SXSW in 2020. Written by Rebecca Flynn-White and Zak White, the script is peppered with quippy jokes, though they seem aimed at children much younger than the ones watching a movie about a potential serial killer teacher.
The premise itself is compelling enough for the target demographic, a generation whose notorious fixation on grades has undoubtedly prompted daydreams of ruining a teacher’s life. Like the wares hidden in Mrs. Wheeler’s storage closet, “The Prank” feels like a Frankenstein’s monster of a few too many genres and demographics to hit the mark.
“The Prank” premiered at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival and is currently seeking distribution.