'Boarding School': Film Review

Fresh premise flubbed in execution.

An "exclusive" school isn't what it appears to be in Boaz Yakin's thriller.

Even in today's educational landscape, where increasingly targeted environments address special needs that weren't even recognized a generation ago, the place run by Will Patton's headmaster in Boarding School is exotic — with an enviable student-teacher ratio and a willingness to do anything to satisfy parents of unusually challenging kids. Though the small institution's goals will remain a mystery for most of the film, suffice to say that it shouldn't be hard to make a nasty little thriller out of this material. But writer-director Boaz Yakin, who has directed everything from veteran movie stars to canine thesps in his career, has a harder time with child actors, eliciting performances that are uneven enough to attract attention to the script's weaker aspects.

Luke Prael (last seen torturing Eighth Grade's Elsie Fisher with his nonchalant beauty) stars as Jacob, a Brooklyn kid with a dubious accent and a troubled home life. He suffers from vivid nightmares, and when he wakes up screaming, his mom (Samantha Mathis) does anything but soothe him: "I will kill you! I will kill you!" she screams when he interrupts her sleep for the umpteenth time; Jacob's stepdad, Davis (David Aaron Baker), suggests, less than helpfully, that the boy should apologize to her for being such a handful.

The trouble intensifies when Jacob's grandmother dies, and an elderly friend of hers accosts him at the funeral to tell a harrowing story about what Granny endured during the Holocaust, and what she had to do to survive.

Suddenly, Jacob finds himself shipped off to "an exclusive school" for "unique young people." (Though nobody will explain exactly why he's here, we suspect the last straw came when Davis found him dancing alone in his grandmother's old ball gown.) Housed in an old mansion with more character than these places usually have, it is run by Dr. Sherman (Patton) and his wife (Tammy Blanchard). The doctor is both principal and the place's sole teacher, while the Mrs. is responsible for condescendingly correcting the grammar of any sentence a child utters in her presence.

Jacob's six fellow students do nothing to dispel his concerns that his elders see him as a freak. There's a kid with crippling Tourette's syndrome, an obese boy who can't stop eating and a horribly scarred burn victim. Then there's Christine (Sterling Jerins), the snarky daughter of one of Davis' colleagues, who not long ago rattled Jacob by telling him he was "pretty," like a girl, not "handsome" like a boy. Now forced to endure classes that focus more on the Bible than grammar or math, Christine seems perhaps to be enjoying the corporal punishment Dr. Stewart metes out when she misbehaves.

Christine may or may not be responsible for the gruesome things that start happening around the small campus, but it's soon clear that the Shermans have something more than academics or soul-saving on their minds. The kids' attempts to follow clues and look for means of escape are reasonably diverting, but without performances that get us fully on their side, the storytelling drags. Yakin's script wants to deal with some big issues — not just regarding whatever is going on with Jacob's sexuality, but with themes of anti-Semitism and Jewish survival. But flashbacks to the Holocaust, poorly integrated into the action, are cheap here, and it seems that the movie's main interest in Jacob's girlishness results from Yakin thinking it will look cool for him to be dressed in drag while he gets bloody in the violent climax. Unfortunately, looking cool isn't quite enough to drive the action home.

Production companies: Gigantic Pictures, Storyland Pictures
Distributor: Momentum Pictures
Cast: Luke Prael, Sterling Jerins, Will Patton, Tammy Blanchard, Samantha Mathis, David Aaron Baker, Nadia Alexander, Christopher Dylan White, Nicholas J. Oliveri, Kobi George, Kadin George
Director-screenwriter: Boaz Yakin
Producers: Jonathan Gray, Scott Floyd Lochmus, Jason Orans
Executive producers: Hadar Burger, Peter Fine, Stuart Ford
Director of photography: Mike Simpson
Production designer: Mary Lena Colston
Costume designer: Jessica Zavala
Editor: Martin Brinkler
Composer: Lesley Barber
Casting directors: Henry Russell Bergstein, Stephanie Holbrook

R, 111 minutes