Hollywood likes to openly proclaim that it embraces American values, but, if GENERAL EDUCATION is any indication, I’m not entirely certain Tinseltown even recognizes what sentiments average Americans embrace any longer. Granted, children are always going to have some ‘secrets’ they hold out on their parents, but why glamorize it? Also, parents are always going to want something better for their children, but do they seriously force them to pursue dreams that’ll more likely drive their kids into bankruptcy instead of having a life of personal fulfillment? I could go on, but methinks I don’t want to spoil too much of this political claptrap in the first paragraph!
(Note: the following review will contain minor spoilers necessary for the discussion of characters and plot. If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review spoiler-free, then skip down to the last two paragraphs for my final words. However, if you’re entirely accepting of some hints at things to come, then read on.)
Levi Collins (played by Chris Sheffield) appears to have a bright future. He’s just “won” an athletic scholarship for tennis that should give him the ‘full ride’ for tuition, but, as luck would have it, he has one problem: he hasn’t yet successfully graduated from high school!
And therein lies the central problem of GENERAL EDUCATION: very little of what we’re shown makes any sense. Only a few minutes after being granted a full scholarship by a sexually suggestive college recruiter (???), we’re told Levi has to “compete” in a tournament and “win” in order to obtain it. Despite the fact that the script assures us that Levi is a tennis pro – even descended from other tennis pros in his family history – we’re never shown him playing AT THE LEVEL of a tennis pro. In fact, we’re only shown him repeatedly losing.
As the film unfolds, we learn that this is what accounts for “plot development” because Levi’s father (and town mayor), Rich Collins (comedy veteran Larry Miller), is the only one who’s pushing for his son to become a tennis star. Levi has no interest in it – which is good since he can’t play it or, rather, plays fairly poorly – nor does he have any aspirations for college except for the fact that he knows he wants to attend Arizona State University, a choice apparently not to his father’s liking.
Somehow, the audience is supposed to find all of this “funny.”
To further complicate his family life, mom Gale (woefully miscast Janeane Garofalo) is taken to speaking in slight sarcasm while repeated swilling glasses of wine. At one point, Levi – along with his older brother and younger sister – find Mommie Dearest modestly incapacitated (think ‘drunk’) while fully clothed in the bathtub late in the day after a grueling evening of drinking. Weakly, she waxes on about the troubles of raising children who will all grow up and leave home someday like she’s the only parent who ever suffered from such a revelation.
And again, somehow, the audience is supposed to find all of this “funny.”
However, back to Levi’s antics. See, he’s forced to lie to his parents about graduating from high school – for which he’s wistfully forgiven because it’s all their fault, after all. In order to get his diploma, he’ll suffer through a ten-day summer school program in Earth Sciences. Eighty percent of his grade for the class is the presentation of a class project, and, on a whim, Levi decides to convert his new car into ‘hybrid’ that’ll run on vegetable oil. The main problem with this ‘project’ is that he never does any of the work! His brother – also a failed tennis pro – is suddenly revealed to have world class automotive skills and installs the already invented filter into the engine and … voila! Passing grade! Plus, a happy ending!
And still, miraculously, writer/director Tom Morris expects audiences to find all this scathingly “funny.”
There’s so much wrong in the presentation of GENERAL EDUCATION that I won’t trouble readers with the lion’s share. What I truly found relevant was the fact that this appears to largely have been an independent production – outside the standard Hollywood studio system – but, under Morris’s direction, it all kinda/sorta stinks like a failed Disney Channel Saturday Night Movie. None of the right sentiments are baked into the cake – indeed, many of the jokes come off as half-cocked puns that even Disney stars quite possibly wouldn’t be caught dead performing – and, instead, we’re treated up to the slightly veiled “it takes a village to get a kid to pass high school” formula. Before all is said and done, Dad’s at fault, Mom’s at fault, the school’s at fault, the law’s at fault, society’s at fault, but – rest assured – the kids are alright.
Poorly conceived and woodenly acted, EDUCATION has a few moments of mirth that play out honestly. I can’t help thinking that those were the accidents here and not what Morris and his cast and crew intended.
GENERAL EDUCATION is produced by Pelican House Productions. DVD distribution is being handled through Well Go USA Entertainment. As for the technical aspects, the sights and sounds are acceptable though nothing grand – the sound mix was a bit off (I had to crank up the center speaker volume in order to hear the actors’ dialogue) in the opening sequences, but it seemed to even out about twenty minutes in. The disc comes with a respectable assortment of bonus features – an audio commentary, outtakes, making-of short, and the original theatrical trailer – but I didn’t invest any time with them as the overly maudlin quality of the picture turned me a bit sour in the conclusion.
SLIGHTLY RECOMMENDED but with some strong reservations. There’s part of me that wants to recommend GENERAL EDUCATION to families because, in many respects, it’s clearly intentioned as a light-hearted romp about a boy, his family, and his misadventures. Still, there’s another part of me that sees the film for what it is: a slightly veiled attempt to discredit traditional American family values and supplant them with some Liberal / Progressive hogwash hoping no one will notice. As it is, there are far too many weird secondary subplots (many of which come get introduced and then brushed away from some genuinely bad comic writing) that spoil whatever good intentions the filmmakers may’ve been able to muster.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Well Go USA Entertainment provided me with a DVD screener of GENERAL EDUCATION for the expressed purposes of completing this review.