Homework (2011): Gavin Wiesen’s Debut, Starring Freddie Highmore

Sundance Film Fest 2011 (Dramatic competition)

The subversive teenage misfit has been a powerful figure in American literature and movies largely because of the collective identification of the loner whose guile and impudence expose the hypocrisy and arrogance of the powerful and socially privileged.

It is therefore particularly disappointing that “Homework,” a debut film directed and written by Gavin Wiesen, lacks the pungent wit and dark insouciance of classic teenage outsider movies, ranging from “Lord Love a Duck” to “Pump Up the Volume“ and “Heathers.”

The story of an intelligent though disaffected kid whose bleak personal world is suddenly altered by his evolving friendship with a beautiful classmate, “Homework” works strenuously hard and too often fails to find fresh angles to what is an extremely familiar material.

Wiesen has a sharp eye for composition and cutting, and he also has a facility with actors. Nonetheless, “Homework” is too pallid and imitative of other films.  Director Wiesen lacks either the experience or the temperament to take the material into different, uncharted directions.

Fox Searchlight acquired the film at Sundance, where it premiered in the dramatic competition. It makes sense, given that the movie is clearly patterned on their recent hit, “(500) Days of Summer.“ Which is also the great source of its problem; it is comfortable and rarely deviates from the norm.

The premise seems lifted from the opening of “Annie Hall,” with the adolescent Alvy Singer mortified at the impending apocalypse brought about by an expanding universe. “He stopped doing his homework,” his mother shrieks to the doctor. “What’s the point?” was the kid’s hilarious response.

“Homework” opens in the dour and pessimistic tone of George (the talented English actor Freddie Highmore), a New York high school senior at a progressive private school dismayed by the specter of his own mortality. George approximates the recognizably Holden Caulfield standoffishness of the tortured and lonely teenage misfit to avoid confrontation of any true emotional or personal engagement with his peers or instructors.

In the first of the film’s many plot inconsistencies, George has conned his way through a rigorous Manhattan high school despite never fulfilling any of his course requirements. His patient, supremely understanding principal (Blair Underwood) has again put him on notice. His mother (Rita Wilson) continues to pressure him to improve his performance in order to gain acceptance to an important college.

Friendless and isolated, George has one apparent gift, for sketching. He’s also the kind of brainy autodidact who keeps teachers and classmates at a remove. His combination of sarcasm and self-ridicule serves as a protective bubble. His enclosed and private world is rocked when the class beauty Sally (Emma Roberts) befriends him, after his quick thinking averts her from landing in trouble.

The two are suddenly inseparable. Sally helps him open up and immediately elevates his social standing. But as writer Wiesen is unable to really animate that milieu or detail it emotionally or anthropologically with observation or developing characterization. George’s background and family are fractured, but he clearly has the means and social connections to create his own experiences.

The story turns on a natural impulse of George’s growing unrequited crush on Sally. As the two circle and dance around each other while trying to determine the true nature of their friendship, matters are further complicated by the appearance of Dustin (Michael Angarano), an older artist who befriends George. In one of the nice touches of the script, Dustin’s motives remain murky and uncertain and he shifts between confidante and romantic rival.

“Homework” is very much of a generic type, the “guy’s film.”  As such, it is almost exclusively restricted to George’s point of view. Moreover, it displays some of the same fundamental problems of movies such as “(500) Days of Summer,” namely, inability to provide a contradictory or complex interior portrait of Sally, the beautiful object of desire.

Roberts is a vibrant and polished young performer, and she certainly possesses the physical requisites of the part. But she has done this part several times already, most recently in Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden’s “It’s Kind of a Funny Story.” The closed off conception of the part denies the actress any significant believability or complexity.

Typical of the problem is a scene with the two at dinner, when they begin to delve into very personal details and her sexual proposition is immediately withdrawn. Like George, the camera loves her face. But the part is inchoate and underwritten. Having done this kind of role already, Stone never quite summons anything radical or explosively unpredictable.

Instead of using the time to deepen and complicate the emotional lives of the two leads, “Homework” is seriously marred by several subplots involving their respective parents.  Indeed, the time dedicated to the business ruin of George’s stepfather (Sam Robards) is time and energy badly misspent.

The movie is much better in the sideways glances and private moments, as for example in the depiction of George’s surprise at the bold flirtatiousness of Sally’s mother (Elizabeth Reaser).

Nonetheless, too often, “Homework” is a well-made movie conventionally told.  Instead of standing outside the norms, “Homework” regurgitates them.

By Patrick Z. McGavin