Movie Review: Cross Country rebels try to pass themselves as “Varsity Punks” in this indie comedy

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There’s a half-joking cliche about a phrase directors over-use on the sets of big screen comedies.

“Again. But faster.”

Comedy is about timing, and speed and pacing are a big part of that. And no comedy about running, even if it’s about cross-country distance running and not sprints, can afford to be as slow-footed as “Varsity Punks.”

It’s about a jock who has relished being part of America’s Football Industrial Complex since childhood. Then, he’s injured in a high school prank and finds himself forced to abandon the safety of The Popular and the Pretty and take up with kids he’s teased since his tweens, discovering their humanity and his true worth in the process.

But as promising set-ups are misplayed or abandoned, as the comic leads search and search for their funny bones, with the script offering no help, these “Punks” seem gassed long before the finish line comes into sight.

Monte Valley is a typical American high school where life is all about football. The “misfits” who’re into sports? They wear their hair too long, sport a few too many tattoos and run cross country, “XC” as it’s called.

A prologue has shown us that A.J. (Cody Esquivel ) has been jerky jock since his tweens, picking on future XC runner Rosie (Andy Bueono) even then. But the handsome QB of the Monte Valley Vikings has never wavered in commitment to his athletic career.

He avoids risks off the field, until that fateful mid-season party where he’s reluctantly sent on a beer run. Peer pressure results in a “tense” grab and dash that gets him two cases, and a busted hand.

His foul-mouthed football-crazed coach (Orien Richman, the funniest guy in the movie) blows up and blows A.J. off. You’d expect no less from a guy who chews on his young charges with “Just because you can Google ‘concussion,’ you think you’re a DOCTOR now?”

A.J. needs to stay in shape, needs an outlet. So he jogs over to the “misfits” running cross country. Laid-back Coach Menlo, played by Efren Ramirez (Pedro of “Napoleon Dynamite”) lets the “jock” in, shrugging off his arrogance that he’s automatically in the starting seven on the XC team. His new teammates?

“He’s not one of us! He doesn’t DESERVE to run with us.”

“Varsity Punks” never loses track of the kids, but it does tend to lean on Ramirez to juice up the comedy quotient. And he just can’t get up to speed.

Coach Menlo gets so little respect from the football-crazed school that he loses his office space to the junior varsity — “Let me bend over, like the rest of the administration, and give you guys everything you want.”

Ramirez cannot make that line funny.

Reacting to the other coaches (veteran character actor Noel Gugliemi of “A Boy Called Sailboat”) bragging about their teaching gigs “Online MASTERS, boy!” just contrasts Ramirez from the snappier wits cast around him.

Writer-director Anthony Solorzano even gives Menlo a couple of secrets — he was a star cross country runner at Monte Valley as a high schooler, but today he’s got a gambling problem, a weakness for the ponies. You sense Solorzano realized the mistake in casting in the editing, as in one unexplained scene, the cash from a “fundraiser” for the team we haven’t noticed is then gambled away — with no follow up scene showing consequences for Coach Menlo.

Solorzano leaves money on the table, time and again, in the finished film. Lines are wasted in a scene where A.J. is warned that a tea they’re competing with “Runs dirty” — elbows, trips, etc. Solorzano doesn’t do the obvious with this — a footballer now running XC is NOT a guy you want to try elbowing in mid-race. Solorzano does NOTHING with that piece of painstakingly included dialogue.

And after putting “Punks” in the title, a little shaving creaming cars is all the “punkish” behavior we’re treated to. The little scamps!

Here’s what does work. Rosie’s short childhood make him an easily goaded older teen. He’s provoked into joining a backyard fight club bout.

“He’s not really a BOUNCER, right?

“Naah, that’s just his GANG name…But don’t worry. He left the gang when he was 12.”

The rejected-by-the-popular-kids journey A.J. makes — dumped by his dishy girlfriend  (“Cross Country, who DOES that?”), shamed by his punk teammate Ryan (J.J. Martinez) — may be a non-starter.

But the whiskey-soaked rural California parties, where the boys flirt and the girls twerk and Jesus (it’s a Halloween costume) is the bartender at the tub, taking every bottle “contributed” to the event to make “Jungle Punch,” have the ring of the real and are at least potentially funny.

Coach Menlo’s flirtation with the “hot math teacher” who runs marathons (Raquael Torres, lightly amusing)? Not so much.

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The subject matter and El Monte, California locations conjure up unfortunate comparisons to the Kevin Costner-coaches Latino runners dramedy “McFarland, USA,” a far superior movie even if it did have the “Anglo Saving the Latinos” subtext to fight against.

There’s a lot to be said for “telling our own stories,” but “Punks” doesn’t even have that going for it. A mostly Latino cast and the writer-director gives the picture little flavor of the people or the place.

Making it “again, but faster” isn’t an option. But it might have helped. For a movie about running, this one never gets out of the blocks.

1star6

MPAA Rating: unrated, boxing violence, sexual situations, alcohol abuse and profanity — all involving teens.

Cast: Efren Ramirez, Andy Bueno, Cody Esquivel, Stphanie Almaraz, Raquael Torres, Noel Gugliemi

Credits: Written and directed by Anthony Solorzano. A Top 7 Productions release.

Running time: 1:40

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