Saturday, September 29, 2012

A Close Call: "The Graduates" (2009)

On the surface, "The Graduates" looks like all those other coming-of-age high school flicks, complete with virginal dudes and binge drinking in a resort town. However, the writer/director here shoots for something more, and frustratingly comes up a little short.

A carload of recently graduated Baltimore high schoolers are headed to Ocean City, Maryland to drink and get laid. We have normal every guy Ben (Rob Bradford), who is in lust with hottie Annie (Stephanie Lynn), but is secretly loved by best friend Megs (Laurel Reese). Ben's older brother Josh (Josh Davis) is in his twenties but still heads down to graduates' week (think Matthew McConaughey in "Dazed and Confused"). Freaky Nickie (Mike Pennacchio) is a rich kid on meds who tries too hard to fit in as a regular dude. Nerdy Andy (Blake Merriman) is in a committed chaste relationship with his girlfriend, who wants something more, and Mattie (Nick Vergara) plays a father figure role in the group.

While the normal boring parties begin (nice to see some things haven't changed in the twenty-three years since I was a senior in high school- like a keg and more than three people constitute a "party"), the guys are thrown for a loop. Their tentative plans begin to unravel, as they must grow up now that they are out of high school. They are still dealing with high school level dramatics and situations (iffy sex, long-term relationships that are anything but, and plans after summer ends), but this one shortened weekend changes everybody.

Ryan Gielen throws the viewer into the mix, and demands we start caring about these characters before we get to know them. Most of them have too many stock traits, and many of the situations have been done to death (I kept rolling my eyes as Ben kept ignoring the perfect Megs to try and get with a very bitchy Annie). I hated that I had seen this all before, even during the more darkly comic moments.

Although, I am still slightly recommending the film. Why? I haven't been in high school in over two decades, but when I was there, I knew every single one of these people. The cast is unbelievably good, not pounding out a bunch of insult punchlines and showing everyone their boobies and butts (there is only one set of cheeks, and that is it!). Gielen takes some familiar situations and turns them on their ear, making them uncomfortable to watch (Mattie teaching a just jailed Nickie a lesson, Josh running into an old friend from school), but still making them compelling. The soundtrack is really good, by indy bands I haven't heard of. Two stand-outs among the supporting cast are spectacularly funny: Megs' friend Rachel (Rachel Kiri Walker) and party host Stuart (Max Lodge) had me laughing the hardest. And if Judd Nelson ever needs someone to play his college-age son, give Nick Vergara a call. His Mattie character doesn't really stand out much, but Vergara gives him an intensity and edge that almost makes up for the weakly drawn young man.

This isn't a laugh a minute teen comedy, and this doesn't spoof those films, either. "The Graduates" meanders along, detrimentally takes its own sweet time, yet is still worthwhile. (* * *) out of five stars.