As a Southern California resident, I’ve long considered attending the annual Newport Beach Film Festival, but after watching “General Education,” which earned writer/director Tom Morris the “Breakthrough Filmmaker Award” at this year’s event, I think I can safely put that thought to bed. Any organization that would bestow such an honor upon this amateurish production, which has somehow received a spiffy Blu-Ray release from Well Go USA before it inevitably finds a permanent home on premium cable multiplex-channels, clearly has no understanding of what makes for good cinema. I would have been truly angry had I made the 90 minute drive north and paid for a hotel to see this schlock.
The story centers on high school senior Levi Collins (Chris Sheffield), who flunks his science class, putting his college tennis scholarship in danger. He wouldn’t dare tell his parents (Larry Miller and Janeane Garofalo) about this problem for fear of chastisement, so he covertly attends a 10-day session of summer school. There are roadblocks–Levi is only allowed one absence, despite being scheduled for tennis tournaments on two separate days–that create some semblance of a plot. But not enough of a plot for writer/director Morris to forgo the obligatory love interest — classmate Katie (Maiara Walsh).
The elementary premise of “General Education” wouldn’t be a big deal if the writing was funny or the characters were likable–perceptive commentary about high school life would be too tall an order to even ask of Morris–but the filmmaker isn’t successful on either front. In fact, the actual jokes are confoundingly few and far between, especially when it comes to the film’s recognizable comedic performers, Miller and Garofalo, whose roles verge on stone-cold serious. He plays an egotistical politician who is out of touch with his son’s aspirations and she plays his neglected wife turning to alcoholism. Lead Sheffield’s material isn’t much better and he doesn’t possess the charisma needed to carry a movie, but at least there is some humor to the part, even if it’s stale (Levi has a black kid side-kick, for instance).
Virtually the only good thing about the movie is actress Maiara Walsh, who may play the stock “pretty girl with unexpected heart,” but injects some desperately needed life into the otherwise dull proceedings. It’s no easy task to credibly play this archetype–in real life, Katie would never give a cocky dork like Levi the time of day–but Walsh pulls it off with charming effervescence. She may have a future in making movies, but the same cannot be said for Morris, no matter what the cooky folks at the Newport Beach Film Festival thought. “General Education” is an unfunny sitcom — a genre that’s bad enough when it’s 23 minutes on CBS, let alone 85 minutes on Blu-Ray.
Blu-Ray Video and Audio: Brooks Ludwick’s Red-shot cinematography is surprisingly competent for a stupid micro-budget production like “General Education”–chalk it up to the rapid recent advancements in digital technology–and Well Go’s Blu-Ray transfer is decent, free of nagging issues worth mentioning here. The DTS-HD 5.1 soundtrack does not fare as well, with occasionally muffled dialogue, especially at the beginning of the film, but it ultimately gets the job done.
Special Features: There’s a commentary track with director Morris, the producers, and the sound designer that I couldn’t bear to listen to. I did, however, watch the five minute outtake reel, which mostly contains unusable material and bloopers, and the “Making of” feature, a patchwork of boilerplate cast and crew interviews. The film’s trailer is also included.
Movie Grade: D
Disc Grade: C+
The Verdict: Skip it