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Brick’ a rock solid experiment in modern noir

Erin McGinn | Thursday, August 24, 2006

What all of the best high school-based films have in common is the ability to convey how every aspect of teenage life is viewed as a matter of life or death. “Brick,” like the other successful movies of the “high school drama” genre, achieves this goal by taking the world of the film noir detective stories and deftly applying it to a high school setting – thus making the life or death struggles of the teenagers literal as opposed to figurative. The kids in “Brick” take everything seriously, because the events of the plot actually are serious.

The seriousness of the movie produces both enjoyment and entertainment, as opposed to bearing it down, and writer/director Rian Johnson uses this aspect to his full advantage.Referencing and using dialogue in the style of “Maltese Falcon,” “Blue Velvet” and “Chinatown” is inherently funny as well as fascinating to hear.

He successfully translated all of the archetypes present in these types of film to those of high school characters. “Brick” has representatives of several archetypes, including the reluctant anti-hero, informants, femme fatales and plenty of 1930s slang and shady characters.

More eye-opening than anything, it is interesting to see how easily the students in the film fit into these roles. As everyone knows, there is no one more shady than high school drug dealers – so really, it is not much of a stretch.

Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, “10 Things I Hate About You”) is an outsider at his Southern California high school, not because he lacks good looks or athletic ability, but because he has chosen the lone wolf lifestyle. He is forced into action when he receives a strange phone call from his ex-girlfriend Emily (Emilie DeRavin of television’s “LOST”) and subsequently discovers her dead body.

The mystery of her death unfolds in a complicated story that involves the school’s toughest thugs and their hired goons, and Brendan trudges from one situation to another in his quest for truth.

In the grand tradition of these films, the audience is left in the dark too, learning the truth only as quickly as Brendan himself discovers it.

Brendan is eventually led to The Pin (an adult Lukas Hass, who passes for a teenager), easily the most entertaining character in the movie, who runs his drug business from the basement of his parents’ home. He also goes back and forth, working with and against Laura (Nora Zehetner of television’s “Everwood”), the literal teenage drama queen.

Johnson’s smartest move is that the kids do not appear to know they are in a detective story. They are not talking in that style on purpose – it’s just how they talk. There is no winking self-awareness so the gimmick feels natural throughout the film. The entire cast – adults included – also behave in this manner. The one adult who is not part of this world is the mother of The Pin, who interrupts a tense discussion of gang warfare and murder to ask if anyone wants milk and cookies in a highly entertaining scene.

Despite its obvious influences, Johnson, in this debut film, has not just set out to re-create the 1940s film noir. In fact, the movie most commonly referenced here is Roman Polankski’s classic “Chinatown,” the Jack Nicholson film that, while certainly noir-ish, was shot in color and released in 1974.

“Brick” is in color too, and while it maintains the old-school style of profanity-free dialogue, it does feature at least one instance of violence that is far more graphic than anything Humphrey Bogart ever starred in – a reminder, perhaps, that the real world is more startling than the romanticized movie versions of murder and intrigue from the 1940s would suggest.

“Brick” will be screened on Sunday at 7 p.m. by the Notre Dame film society. All are welcome.