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BRICK (director/writer: Rian Johnson; cinematographer: Steve Yedlin; editor: Rian Johnson; music: Nathan Johnson; cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Brendan), Nora Zehetner (Laura), Lukas Haas (the Pin), Noah Fleiss (Tugger), Matt O’Leary (the Brain), Emilie de Ravin (Emily), Noah Segan (Dode), Richard Roundtree (Trueman), Meagan Good (Kara), Brian White (Brad Bramish); Runtime: 110; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Ram Bergman/Mark G. Mathis; Focus Features; 2005)
“Suburban kitsch gets played fast and loose.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A thin teenspeak high school gangsta update on Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler’s 1940’s noir classics of The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep. It was cute for a Valley sec to hear the verbally-challenged teen thugs dish out slang (cops are “bulls,” guns are “gats,” and a regular guy is a “yeg”) and let go of their middle-class roots to act hard-boiled. After that sec it was all downhill for this viewer. It’s the film debut for writer-director Rian Johnson, whose low-budget indie was shot at his alma mater of San Clemente High School and edited on his computer. Oddly enough it won a special jury prize at the 2005 Sundance film festival for “originality of vision,” which puzzles me as to what originality means to that festival since the film is an obvious ripoff of film noir starring Bogart.

The expressive tale begins in a flashback and has brooding suburban teen loner and ex-pusher Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) setting out to find his missing vulnerable druggie ex-girlfriend Emily (Emilie de Ravin) after he receives a mysterious phone call from her asking for his help. Our hero uses pay phone booths and seems to be the only teen in California’s upscale suburbia without a cell phone. Emily’s corpse is soon found by a deserted storm-drain tunnel entrance, and our hero decides to penetrate the teen underworld of heroin pushers to find out the culprit, why she was killed and get revenge.

In the present our charismatic bespectacled tough boy imitation of Sam Spade uncovers a gang of drug dealers operating through a pie shop parking lot and the school drama club. The kingpin is a frail, clubfooted, smarty-pants 26-year-old called the Pin (Lukas Haas), who operates his heroin ring from his basement room in his parents’ suburban home. Pin’s number one man is the meathead, muscle-bound, hotheaded, oafish, hip-hop knit hat wearing white boy Tugger (Noah Fleiss).

Using in the background his sidekick, aptly called the Brain (Matt O’Leary), for support, Brendan infiltrates the gang and for his trouble gets smacked around by Tugger. He also contacts Emily’s new lovelorn stoner boyfriend Dode (Noah Segan) and a pair of femmes fatales: the manipulative rich party gal Laura (Nora Zehetner) and the evil Kara (Meagan Good), cock tease extraordinaire and drama-queen. There’s also some funny business over his association with law-and-order Assistant Vice Principal Trueman (Richard Roundtree), who uses him as a stoolie on high school drug activities rather than turn him over to the law for his past part in drug dealing.

The story line is murky, unable to deliver any surprises and at times simply absurd, but the joy in the film (if there’s any joy to it) is in the gimmicky lighthearted banter among the hipster kiddie gangstas and the killer-smarts of the cool hero who is about to learn a life lesson from this experience. Suburban kitsch gets played fast and loose, as the sunny southern California setting gets turned into a dark place of shady deals in the most ordinary places (locker rooms and mother’s kitchen table) and the hero’s heart is broken from impossible dreams like Bogart’s was in that other pic. For those who can take it on its own terms as a film that reflects the angst of contemporary teens who regard adults with apprehension and cling to their own limited reality of the world, then the adult in you (unless you fit the bill as the target teen audience not spoon-fed on film noir) might find yourself transported back to a time when you also suffered growing pains and acted stupid and would somehow survive to live another day.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”