Say what you like about “Lord of the Flies” and its many, many screen (and literary) imitations over the decades. That story, about the savagery barely civilized out of our young, even and especially the “well born” among them, still plays.
“School’s Out Forever,” based on a Scott K. Andrews novel, may seem a cheesy “Toy Soldiers” variation set in an English boarding school. Throw in a little accidental topicality — civilization breaks down during a pandemic — and some blunt statements on violence, guns and mob mentality, and it’s a lot closer to “Lord of the Flies” than any teens-fight-back action dramedy.
When the contagion breaks out, Lee (Oscar Kennedy) has just been kicked out of Saint Marks School for Boys for playing one cruel prank too many. His mate and co-prankster “Mac” (Liam Lau Fernandez) may have escaped consequences, but Lee’s sent home just in time for the great die-off.
Mercifully, the dead stay dead here. No “28 Days Later” or “Walking Dead,” thank you very much. But a call from his Mum, estranged from his father, tells Lee that he can’t count on holing up at home. No, “Go back to St. Marks,” his mother says. She’ll fetch him there.
The vacant streets and empty stores outside might show a world that’s collapsed. But even though the headmaster (Anthony Head) has died, there is a semblance of order. Mr. Bates (Alex Macqueen) keeps the surviving kids and their matron/nurse (Jasmine Blackborow) organized and looking ahead.
Lee’s return means he can re-team with Mac. Who better to facilitate post-apocalyptic survival than two born anarchists, these amoral pranksters?
But the outside village, Worham, is getting organized under the rule of the gun. And the boys’ “Get medicine, be the heroes” quest in the school van goes awry. Now the armed outside world, led by Georgina (Samantha Bond) is gathering at the gates. Big decisions must be made concerning self-defense, self-preservation and the moral or immoral decisions that undergird them.
Who should be in charge? What steps can be taken? What can they do to wriggle out of the ugly dilemmas they face?
Visual effects specialist turned writer-director Oliver Milburn (“The Harsh Light of Day” was his directing debut) does well by the action beats and manages to keep some ugly choices that mark this coming-of-age tale intact.
Mac, to the manner born, has the decisiveness that we sometimes confuse for “born to lead.” He and Lee are equally young, rash in their decisions, barely considering consequences of their actions. But Mac, merely by taking action and assuming the part, takes on the leadership of the contagion-immune kids. Right. Firearms training it is!
Lee has been slow to recognize what his headmaster lectured him about as he expelled him from the school. “We don’t indulge children. We build men!” Now, though, he’s starting to get it.
Blackborow’s matron is the conscience of the story, but more than one adult demonstrates that compassion is something you acquire with age. Can the student body survive under that ethos?
It’s not every seemingly-empty-headed action film that questions whether ugly times beg for ends-justify-the-means thinking, deployed by everyone from Winston Churchill to Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney.
Milburn doesn’t develop the supporting schoolkid characters enough to show that “Lord of the Flies” radicalization/indoctrination in the stark terms the picture needs. The coda seems unnecessary and there are moments when every action screenplay takes leave of common sense.That “You have 24 hours” to make a decision crutch may be the stupidest thing any movie like this trots out.
But screen newcomer Fernandez, British TV veteran Kennedy, Bond (Moneypenny in “Goldeneye”), Blackborow (“Shadow and Bone”) and Macqueen (“All is True”) give this punchy, lightweight parable the emotional heft to come off.
MPA Rating: unrated, graphic violence, alcohol and drug abuse, profanity
Cast: Oscar Kennedy, Liam Lau Fernandez, Jasmine Blackborow, Alex Macqueen, Samantha Bond and Anthony Head.
Credits: Scripted and directed by Oliver Milburn, based on a Scott K. Andrews novel. A Central City Media release.
Running time: 1:45