The gold, or at least silver standard for teen heist movies was filmed way back in 2004. “The Perfect Score” was about breaking in and stealing the answers to that year’s SAT at the Princeton Testing Center, where such data was kept out of the reach of those willing to cheat the system.
The film put future stars Scarlett Johansson, Chris Evans and Erika Christensen together, managed a tight, suspenseful and sometimes “Breakfast Club” amusing caper, and opened to middling reviews. But being topical, this little slice of middle class teen rebellion is aging well.
“Coin Heist” dips that formula in even more privilege as it concerns prep school kids trying to break into the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia for a caper they hope will “refill the school’s endowment.” It earned a limited release in 2017, to no fanfare, and as of yet, its stars — Alex Saxon, Alexis G. Zall, Sasha Pieterse, Jay Walker — haven’t emerged as among the major names of their generation.
But what Emily Hagins’ film, based on an Elisa Ludwig novel, gets right is that all-important hook — the caper. It takes us into unfamiliar territory — a Federal factory where coins are made — and shows how ingenious kids might figure out a way to “cheat the system, for a change,” it being a given that even as teens in an exclusive prep school, “the system” is giving them the business.
All those provisos aside, I liked it. I love the genre, and the idea that somebody could bone up on how to do this by “watching 12 heist pictures back to back” is an easy one for any movie buff to endorse.
We see Jason (Saxon), the flighty, “never finishes anything” headmaster’s son, dive into “Gambit.” He might have also watched “The Hot Rock” and “Going in Style,” “Tower Heist” and “Topkapi,” and probably some version or all versions of “Ocean’s Eleven.” One thing he knows they’re going to need to pull this off is “a team.”
Even the grungy clever hacker-chick (Zall) who first broaches the idea to him hasn’t wholly come to that conclusion. She’s trying to impress him, we figure, because he’s hot.
But they’re going to need footballer/part-time mechanic Benny (Walker), who might or might not join up, even though the white kids assume he’ll be down with this because he’s streetwise, aka Black.
And they don’t know it, but Miss Hyper-Organized Class President, Dakota (Pieterse), would be perfect at logistics, “coming up with alibis” and play-acting her way into the Mint to get a security pass they can copy.
They’re driven to this because Jason’s dad is arrested during the art class’s Mint tour for embezzling school funds and putting Dennington Prep in jeopardy. Everybody’s concerned about being able to finish school there. Jason feels spillover guilt for this. And Dakota’s motivated because all extra-curricular activities are the first things to go, “and we’ll have to have the Winter Formal in the cafeteria, unfortunately.”
There’s friction from the start, with Jason’s reliable unreliability clashing with hacker Alice’s risk tolerance and snobby Dakota’s recruiting of jock/engineering whiz Benny taking on a teasing flirtation that might not be the smartest move.
Their art teacher (Michael Cyril Creighton) is a little suspicious, and board of trustees chair Mr. Smerconish (Mark Blum) might have to be tricked, kept in the dark and outwitted.
Because there’s no way these kids can pull this burglary-based-scheme off, right?
Hagins, of “My Sucky Teen Romance,” doesn’t deliver much in the way of humor or witty banter here. There are a few sparks set off among our leads, but the director keeps her eyes on the heist and it plays.
The finale is seriously undigested, but that’s consistent with the film as a whole. It’s a workable, salvageable caper comedy that needed more comedy and a heist picture that needed a bit more interesting content and character development outside of the heist.
The actual heist she got right. It’s what leads up to it and follows it that she botches.
Cast: Alex Saxon, Alexis G. Zall, Sasha Pieterse, Jay Walker, Michael Cyril Creighton and Mark Blum
Credits: Scripted and directed by Emily Hagins, based on a novel by Elisa Ludwig. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:38