Struck by Lightning: Tribeca Review

"Struck by Lightning"
Chris Colfer’s "Glee" appeal is AWOL in this strained dark comedy about a high school misfit.

"Glee's" Chris Colfer wrote and stars in this teen comedy about a high school misfit.

Chris Colfer of "Glee" stays in familiar territory with his screenwriting debut, which basically plays like an extended episode of that hit show minus the musical interludes. The tale of a high school misfit who’s clearly smarter than everyone else in the room and is sure to let everyone know it, Struck by Lightning strains hard for quirky social satire but proves mostly wearisome. It will take smart marketing and a big turnout by Colfer’s die-hard fans to lift this film directed by Brian Dannelly (Saved), now receiving its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, above niche status.

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It’s no spoiler to reveal that Colfer’s character winds up dead, since his fate--specified by the literal title--is revealed at the very beginning. Like William Holden’s similarly ill-fated Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard, he proceeds to narrate the tale, told in flashback. 

Seventeen-year-old Carson Phillips (Colfer), who aspires to both a prestigious journalism career at the New Yorker and winning the Nobel Peace Prize, faces some serious obstacles. Growing up in a small town with his prescription drug and booze addicted single mom (Allison Janney), he’s surrounded by shallow high school classmates and clueless adults, including a guidance counselor who’s never heard of Northwestern University.

Through plot machinations to convoluted to recount, Carson becomes convinced that his only path to that prestigious school is by starting a literary magazine featuring contributions from his fellow students. To get these stereotypical figures—the school jock, the snooty cheerleader (Sarah Hyland of "Modern Family"), the closeted gay couple, etc.—to cooperate, he and his best friend (a funny Rebel Wilson) threaten to reveal their secrets.

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Ironically, the actor/screenwriter is on surer ground with his handling of the adult characters. The bitter mom--whose idea of nurturing is to tell her son, “You make me wish I had that abortion in the ‘90s”--is alternately hilarious and pathetic. Carson’s oblivious father (Dermot Mulroney) is in a new relationship with a sweet pharmacist (Christina Hendricks) who’s pregnant with his child but completely unaware of his past. And his aged, Alzheimer’s-afflicted grandmother (Polly Bergen) is unable to recognize him when he visits.

Unfortunately, most of the film revolves around Carson, whose condescending wisecracks and endless pop culture references make him less precocious than thoroughly obnoxious. When he dies at the end, it feels less like a tragedy of unfulfilled potential than a mercy killing.

Straining for cheap laughs with such lines as “I hate you more than I hate the Holocaust,” the film feels much longer than its 90 minutes.

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While Colfer displays far less charisma here than he does on "Glee", the supporting adult actors pick up much of the slack. Janney is particularly superb, providing real depths to what could have been a stock character; Mulroney and Bergen bring a touching poignancy to their roles; and an understated Hendricks is deeply moving.

Tribeca Film Festival
Production: Permut Presentations, Camellia Entertainment, Evil Media Empire, Inphenate
Cast: Chris Colfer, Allison Janney, Christina Hendricks, Polly Bergen, Dermot Mulroney, Sarah Hyland, Carter Jenkins, Brad William hence, Rebel Wilson, Angela Kinsey.
Director: Brian Dannelly
Screenwriter: Chris Colfer
Producers: David Permut, Roberto Aguire, Mia Chang
Executive producers: Jason Michael Berman, Chris Colfer, Glenn Rigberg, Lawrence Kopeikin
Director of photography: Bobby Bukowski
Editor: Tia Nolan
Production designer: Linda Burton
Costume designer: Wendy Chuck
Music: Jake Monaco
No rating, 90 minutes

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