Here’s one thing about bullying that “Runt” gets exactly right. There’s a conspiracy of silence among the kids who suffer from it, the ill-raised thugs who carry it out and today’s “let’s get this beatdown on video” insensate cretins whom we used to call “bystanders.”
Here’s another. It’s a teenager’s ultimate “Catch-22,” damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t dilemma. Speak up and the ostracization spreads among your classmates, the bullying gets worse as adults earn the sobriquet “clueless” and “ineffectual.” Fight back and you’re blamed. And the bullying gets worse. Duck and cower and you carry the shame forever. And the bullying gets worse.
“Runt” is a slightly exaggerated march through that war zone, an artistic kid picked on by a gang of jocks and threatened by the unfashionable suburban LA high school’s teachers who figure making him speak up about it is for his own good.
It’s entirely too “on the nose” to be very surprising, and the third act is a bit of a head-scratcher. But it feels lived-in, stumbled through and endured, rather like high school itself.
Disney Channel alumnus Cameron Boyce (“Gamer’s Guide to Pretty Much Everything”) stars as Cal, a smart kid living with a nurse single mom (we never see her face) and his beloved Australian cattle dog, aptly named Runt.
Cal is a talented artist and a focused kid who avoids the drugs that seem to be all around him at his school. He bags groceries in the afternoons and pines away for the cute, popular Gabby (Brianna Hildebrand) in the mornings.
As is the way of such movies, he can’t see the perfect match who keeps trying to catch his eye while right under his nose. I must add that casting cover girlish/runway-ready Nicole Elizabeth Berger (“The Place of No Words”) as Cecily undercuts the traditional “She’s dressed down, but wait till he REALLY sees her” MO of such movies.
The football team has decided that Cal is their ticket to a perfect season and are relentlessly threatening as they strong arm him into letting them cheat. When they’re caught, the clueless teacher leans on Cal and the kid’s tenuous grasp on a normal school experience is torn away.
Vic (Aramis Knight), the star QB who figures a major college will come calling if they have a perfect season, leads the gang that assaults and humiliates Cal at every turn, the more public the better, the more bruising he has to make up a lie to cover for.
A confrontation in the principal’s office reveals the insidious nature of Cal’s quandary. The jerk coach (Jason Patric) sides with his players and helps them carry off their cover up.
So much for making time with Gabby, who is Vic’s girlfriend, by the way. So much for getting to know the pretty Cecily, nicknamed “Home Schooled” by his classmates, especially his oafish friend Borgie (Cyrus Arnold).
So much for Gabby’s “come to my party” to “show them how none of this even bothers you.”
That party is where things seriously escalate in the classic bully-as-imagined-victim sense. For Cal and Cecily, school life becomes a living, physical and social-media assault nightmare.
You don’t have to know actor Boyce’s life story to find poignance in this story, the awful choices facing this kid and the future that’s being jeopardized by a gang of jocks who exist in high school’s version of “above the law.”
He’s superb at making us furious on his behalf, yelling at the screen for him to fight back. His performance and the screenplay are great at capturing how limited his options are and how ill-equipped your average high school kid is at dealing with this all-consuming, wholly personal disaster.
Cal takes stupid steps and makes poor choices because he won’t, he can’t, consult an adult on the matter.
Cecily has her own take on the situation, and Berger gets across somebody whose confidence or lack of it hides a rough home life that is her secret shame.
“Runt” has enough going for it that you may not be as bothered by its predictability, and worse, it’s melodramatic stumbles toward the finish line. But even with those shortcomings, the cast and the lived-in feel of this high school world conjured up by director and co-writer William Coakley make this “Runt” the pick-of-the-litter when it comes to movies about high school bullying.
Rating: unrated, violence, drug abuse, profanity
Cast: Cameron Boyce, Nicole Elizabeth Berger, Brianna Hildebrand, Aramis Knight, Cyrus Arnold and Jason Patric.
Credits: Directed by William Coakley, scripted by Christian van Gregg, Armand Constantine and William Coakley. A 1091 release.
Running time: 1:35