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Setting out to explore the benign, adorable side of extreme helicopter parenting, director Kyle Rideout and his co-screenwriter, Josh Epstein, could have landed in unbearably quirky territory. But their follow-up to the biographical drama Eadweard proves surprisingly light on its feet. The farcical story of a single mother, her only child and their wackily heartfelt testing of new waters is a feel-good comedy with a self-aware undertow of cringe. The writing and direction of Public Schooled put a bright spin on high-school antics, and the ace cast makes the grade, led by Judy Greer’s long-proven down-to-earth magic and the deft physical comedy of Daniel Doheny.
In his first theatrical feature, Doheny delivers an assured performance as 16-year-old physics whiz Liam, sheltered and socially awkward after a lifetime of home-schooling by his devoted mother, Claire (Greer). Their studies in the garage classroom are about to pay off: Once Liam aces his equivalency exam, he’ll be headed for Cambridge to study astronomy with Stephen Hawking. But at the public high school where he takes the test, a pretty one-legged girl, Anastasia (Siobhan Williams), catches his eye. He decides on the spot to sabotage the carefully laid plan so that he can spend some remedial time at Cherry Rock High.
That’s a horrifying prospect for Claire, who disdains the school for a variety of reasons, both scholastic and personal. Her view of it as “an institution for low expectations” is borne out by the know-nothing principal, Mr. Kelly (Andrew McNee), and a guidance counselor (Russell Peters) who urges students to take the career path of least resistance. To avoid the hassle of paperwork, Kelly lets Liam borrow the identity — and the class schedule — of Maria Sanchez, a student whose whereabouts he isn’t quite sure of.
The bright candy hues of the school hallways further signal the frivolity of the adventure, even while Liam goes through recognizable growing pains and discovers the intricacies of life outside the home-school bubble. In his goofy way, he rises to the challenge nimbly. He quickly becomes targeted by an asinine, Aussie-accented bully (Andrew Herr) and just as quickly learns to deal with it on his own rather than speed-dialing Mom. The school’s reigning Halloween costume champ (Alex Barima) gives him advice on how to approach his crush, and Liam steps up his game with Anastasia, in devious ways.
Claire is never far from any of the action, and the film’s central joke is the way she turns her son’s eagerness for normal teen experience into a joint project in responsible rebellion. In fact, they return to the garage classroom for a special lesson in Teenage Rebellion, where the topics include swearing and condom application. Claire supervises Liam’s first tastes of alcohol and pot, the latter courtesy of a medical marijuana prescription for Granma (Maxine Miller), who spends most of the film beaming contentedly, breaking her silence to deliver a few perfectly timed punchlines via just a word or two.
The adventure in misbehavior culminates with a double date of sorts at a college party: Joining Claire and Liam are a home-school mother and daughter — sexually frustrated and socially stunted, respectively, and well played by Grace Park, of the series Hawaii 5-0, and Andrea Bang.
In dialogue and character behavior, the film acknowledges the too-close-for-comfort borderline between parental preoccupation and something far more intrusive. Casting it in a more cosmic light, Liam comments in science-geek voiceover narration that “I’m like the moon or something, slowly moving away from Mother Earth.” Greer and Doheny generate a lively, weird and healthy tension around that push-pull. Public Schooled is Claire’s story as much as her son’s, and the sweet but not saccharine wrap-up is, with its small but definite change of orbits, a kind of supernova for each of them.
Production company: Motion 58
Cast: Judy Greer, Daniel Doheny, Siobhan Williams, Alex Barima, Andrew McNee, Andrew Herr, Russell Peters, Grace Park, Andrea Bang, Maxine Miller, Eva Day, Josh Epstein
Director: Kyle Rideout
Screenwriters: Josh Epstein, Kyle Rideout
Producers: Josh Epstein, Adam Folk
Executive producer: Justine Whyte
Director of photography: Stirling Bancroft
Production designer: Harry Brar
Costume designer: Florence Barrett
Editor: Yvann Thibaudeau
Composer: Matthew Rogers
Casting directors: Kris Woz, Kara Eide
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema)
Sales: Kaleidoscope Film Distribution
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