Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Chris Colfer's Superiority Complex Spotlighted In 'Struck by Lightning'...

When I was in high school I had a bit of a superiority complex. You've seen Mean Girls, right? You know how Tina Fey points out that self-esteem isn't the problem when the girls go apesh*t on each other? They all had just a little too much self-esteem, and so many Alphas (or Type As) don't mesh well together. I'm not really proud that I fit into that category, though I do think having the self-assurance and awareness that high school was only a blip while knowing and focusing on what I wanted to do for the rest of my life certainly helped get through the angsty times. But I also knew when to keep my mouth shut and keep a lot of my judgements of my peers to myself so I wouldn't constantly come off as an entitled bitch. No one wants to be around an entitled bitch. And no one should want to watch a movie about one either.

Carson Phillips in Struck by Lightning is an entitled bitch. He's the kind of kid who labels himself an outcast because he just can't stand to think of himself lumped in with the rest of the kids his age. There's something to be said for why one might feel so different that's his way of protecting himself, but that is not what Struck by Lightning explores. If it was more of an ensemble, at least there would be justification-- or at least explanation-- through the ways in which Carson has been treated. There would be balance and perspective. Instead, though, Struck by Lightning flashes back to only show Carson as a kid-- and even back then he was a severely acquired taste.

Carson is quick to roll his eyes, to smirk, to look down on everyone in his small town, assuming that he is heads and tails above them because he has a passion that's somewhat academic and not your usual meathead sports or flighty arts "kids' dreams." He accuses his administration of being on a power trip, when really, he's the one most guilty of such a thing. It's a wonder he managed to get voted into Student Council or Editor of the school paper at all because he certainly doesn't have any friends, just kids who would rather let him do all the work since he's just going to claim their efforts weren't up to his standards anyway. He speaks in soliloquy, and most of the time when he opens his mouth, we wish he didn't have the desire to hear his own voice so we could be spared the sophomoric wisdom he sprouts.

I can admit that at times he makes some good points-- Why should we have to learn what imaginary numbers are? Why are there even imaginary numbers to begin with!? And of course today there is an overabundance of medicating those who don't really need it, but why is his the only voice that's deemed relevant or even remotely intelligent enough to bring up key points? It is because his character is Colfer's, and Colfer wrote this as a vehicle for himself? That seems absurdly shortsighted and equally sophomoric. Giving some good lines and actual character development to those around you doesn't diminish your role, it enhances the overall work. I haven't read Colfer's novelization of Struck by Lightning, so I don't know if this one-man-show effect only happened due to flaws in medium translations, but I did not intend to sit through a story from the POV of a whiny adolescent's extremely skewed journal, and yet, low and behold, that is what I got here.

I can also admit that home life is kind of crappy (drugged up mother, absentee father) so he has more of a reason than most to be cynical. But these are excuses-- and ones that don't even earn any sympathy from a guy who reaches for blackmail over attempting to relate to his peers to get what he wants. He can't ask for help; no, he doesn't want to ask for help-- not from these people who he deems so beneath him. But if they really were not worthy of his time or talent, then he wouldn't need their help in the first place. That's the kind of wisdom that can only come with hindsight, and apparently a couple of years out of high school isn't enough for everyone to mature past the petty pains that time may have caused.

When Carson actually admits that everyone hates him, his ego is still so big that he assumes it's because everyone is jealous of him-- because he's smarter and better than everyone. I'm all for a writer working out one's own issues through his or her own fictional works, but Struck by Lightning really could have used an objective set of eyes to say to Colfer that someone-- anyone-- within the story needs to call this kid on his sh*t. 

Instead what we get is a group of characters all so scared to be themselves they go along with Carson's blackmail and accept his belittling outbursts. If they're cliches, they are so because Colfer wrote them that way, which screams volumes about how he feels about typical teenagers, too. They kowtow to his so-called genius, presumably because it's easier to agree than constantly argue, but it still reinforces his terribleness in him. He sits at a school desk like it's his throne, openly mocking their every suggestion and attempt to help him from behind his pretentious reading glasses. It's ridiculously one-sided and while undoubtedly meant to give a voice to the underdogs, no true underdog would want to be associated with this. Ultimately what Carson is doing is its own, admittedly slightly higher brow, brand of bullying. It's unclear if everyone actually hates him, but honestly, they all have more than a right to.

Struck by Lightning is full of missed opportunities for Carson. His grandmother may have dementia, but there's something extremely poignant and on the nose when she tells him she doesn't recognize him. He's far from the sweet dreamer he claims to be; he has turned ambitious into a four-letter word. It's also just sloppy in moments (the process of reapplying to college is really not as dire as this movie makes it, and living life behind a camera is actually a way to avoid living in the present). There's no forward momentum here for anyone; it's an hour and fifteen minutes of character study on a completely unlikeable kid who will never get to grow out of his particular brand of terrible teenager phase. Again, if it was an ensemble there would be more to grab onto and enjoy, but why would you want to sit through something where you don't like the main character, let alone find anything redeemable about him?

The one saving grace is that at least when he's gone, we don't have to endure changes of hearts from kids who suddenly realized the brilliance he saw in himself. In that way, the film seems to nod to the fact that Carson was ridiculous. But it still made us spend time with him, so we can't be too excited by the minor miracle at the end.

It's hard to bemoan the stereotypes of the supporting characters around Carson too much when those characters are pretty much all relegated to cameos anyway (with the exception of his reluctant sidekick played by Rebel Wilson). This isn't a movie about high school; it's a movie about one very specific kid in high school. Struck by Lightning is all about Carson, and he's just the worst, which is made all the more a shame by the amazing actors lined up around him that go improperly used. Struck by Lightning could have been the who's who of teen royalty-- from Suburgatory's Allie Grant, to Awkward's Ashley Rickards, and 1600 Penn's Robbie Amell. Even Allison Janney as Carson's unstable mother is an unflatteringly one-note part. Carson steals focus from everyone not because of the power of Colfer's emotional performance but because it's written that he's the center of this universe. He's so stuck in his own head, believing his own bullshit, accusing everyone else of being selfish when he's the biggest offender, that when you remember the story starts with him actually getting struck by lightning, you actually smile. Because at least his kind of bad attitude and bad behavior isn't going to go unpunished.

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