If you’re familiar with Eric Stoltz‘s acting career, especially the early years, you won’t be the least surprised at the sort of teen movie he’s chosen to make stepping behind the camera.
The star of “Mask” and the John Hughes-scripted “Some Kind of Wonderful,” and the straight man in the comedy “The Wild Life” ensures that “Class Rank” is a genial, sweet-spirited teen romance with barely enough edge to even allow the use of the word.
Maybe it’s more for people Stoltz’s age than teens, but snip out the lone f-bomb, the suggestion of pot and maybe the aftermath of a grownup romantic encounter, and it’d be the most charming thing to hit the Disney Channel in ages.
Bernard Flannigan, played by Skyler Gisondo of “Vacation,” is Livingston, New Jersey’s resident nerd, “town crier” and government gadfly. He’s 16, pedals his nerdbike to every school board meeting and politely and pedantically lectures the group on what it SHOULD be be doing.
“Stop teaching French,” he hectors, “and begin teaching CHINESE. It’s the future!” Lend high schoolers bikes so that they can all lower their carbon footprint and get cars and buses off the streets.
The kid’s been raised by his too-too-sharp grandpa (Bruce Dern) to not be shy, to challenge authority, politely and with seemingly well-reasoned arguments. He’s constantly submitting op-eds to the local newspaper, whose retiring editor (Kathleen Chalfant) indulges him.
Veronica Krause, played by winsome Disney starlet Olivia Holt of “Same Kind of Different as Me” and TV’s “I Didn’t Do It,” is a hyper-organized goal-oriented classmate who obsesses over extra credit, extracurriculars she organizes but doesn’t participate in, and getting into Yale so she can go to law school and make her way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
And she is irked beyond measure when their school’s class rank is assigned to each student, and all her efforts have landed her at number two. “There goes Yale,” she thinks.
So canny class president Veronica recruits erudite government scold Bernard to run for the school board. She renames him “Bernie” as its more accessible and friendly. She does this over his “It sounds like a ‘Sesame Street’ character!” They’ll abolish class rankings and save her Ruth Bader Ginsberg dreams.
The Benjamin August script — he wrote the Christopher Plummer Holocaust survivor drama “Remember” — is pleasant enough, leaning heavily on the charm of the cast.
“Is he smart?” Veronica’s “Law & Order” production crew mom (Kristin Chenoweth) wants to know of this boy that’s taking up all her time.
“I’m not sure what he is.”
August throws in a smart-mouthed Greek chorus of Indian Americans, “The Bollywood Crowd” at Livingston High, who make snarky comments about Veronica and Bernie as “a couple,” even as they envy the Bollywood romance they imagine them having. Which Veronica, being narcissistic enough to be class president and wholly focused on the future ad thus undateable, kind of sees.
Bernie? He’s never at a loss for words, and never a FEW words when many more will do. But he’s utterly oblivious about Miss Right flirting right under his nose. As the local market’s resident stoner (Nick Krause) wonders, “Dude, what’s your deal?”
The campaign and plot play out in predictable ways, with just enough surprises to hold interest. The obstacles to romance are entirely too on-the-nose and require characters to be WAY behind the audience in figuring things out. Whatever the subject matter, this isn’t “Election.” It has the edge of a butter knife.
But the stars are ever-so-engaging, with Gisondo nailing the wordy nerd thing and Krause mastering that teen movie stereotype — beautiful, but too focused to be popular or dateable — she’s saddled with playing.
Whatever else happens to these kids and their dreams, “Class Rank” always defaults to “sweet,” a label often hung-on its director, way back in the day. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
Just enjoy that last time you can take your tweens or very young teens to the movies with you. And watch for Stoltz’s cameo in the film’s third act. You’ll figure out why a freckled reddish-haired kid got the lead.
MPAA Rating: unrated, a tiny bit of profanity, a hint of pot use, a suggestion of adult sexuality
Cast: Olivia Holt, Skyler Gisondo, Bruce Dern, Kristin Chenoweth, Kathleen Chalfant
Credits:Directed by Eric Stoltz, script by Benjamin August. A Cinedigm release.
Running time: 1:41