'Class Rank': Film Review

Courtesy of Napa Valley Film Festival
A teen comedy with heart.
5/11/2018

Two teenagers team up to run for a high school board seat in this comedy directed by Eric Stoltz.

Eric Stoltz's long-ago experience acting in teen-oriented films serves him well with his feature directorial effort revolving around high school politics. Depicting the efforts of a nerdy student and his ultra-ambitious classmate to run for a seat on their school board, Class Rank combines satire with teen romance in sweetly innocuous, but not particularly memorable, fashion. Ironically, despite the focus on the young leads, it is oldsters Bruce Dern and Kathleen Chalfant who wind up stealing the show.

Olivia Holt (Disney Channel's Kickin' It) and Skyler Gisondo (Santa Clarita Diet) play the central roles of Veronica and Bernard, who form an unlikely bond to shake things up at their school. Their partnership is proposed by Veronica after she discovers to her horror that, thanks to an A- grade in gym, she's relegated to being No. 2 in the all-important class ranking that will determine whether she can attend Yale and fulfill her dream of becoming a Supreme Court justice. Knowing that Bernard is the sort of politically active type who constantly appears at school board meetings to hector its members about such topics as teaching Chinese instead of French and providing bicycles to students, Veronica enlists him to throw his hat in the ring and run for a position on the board himself so he can help eliminate the ranking system.

Bernard, who has a habit of showing up at the home of the local newspaper's editor (Chalfant) and giving her articles to publish — "I have an op-ed that can't be ignored!" her informs her while delivering one effort — agrees to take up the challenge. He doesn't really have much else to do, having no friends other than a teenage girl in China with whom he has an online relationship.

Rebranded by his campaign manager Veronica as a more friendly-sounding "Bernie," Bernard soon warms up to his political role. He learns how to duck questions and begins promoting such popular platforms as free condoms for students. Audience members won't need to have seen many teen comedies to guess that Bernard and Veronica develop feelings for each other along the way, albeit not without many awkward moments.

Although the young leads are appealing and the central storyline is reasonably engaging, the film truly shines in its depiction of the romantic relationship that develops between Chalfant's character and Bernard's flinty grandfather, played by Dern. Their tentative courtship begins with a game of shuffleboard and eventually proceeds to some post-coital toking, and thanks to the wonderful work of the veteran performers it's delightful every moment. Kristin Chenoweth also provides an amusing turn as Veronica's supportive mother, an actress who frequently quotes lines from Law and Order to make her points.

Destined to be compared to the Reese Witherspoon starrer Election, Class Rank emerges as a lesser, more superficial effort, with Benjamin August's screenplay often having a TV movie feel. But it offers gentle pleasures along the way, it feels timely in this era in which young people are creating social change and it also serves as a valuable reminder to its target teen audience that their grandparents can still get their groove on.

Production companies: SSS Entertainment, LB Entertainment
Distributor: Cinedigm
Cast: Kyler Gisondo, Olivia Holt, Bruce Dern, Kathleen Chalfant, Nick Krause, Peter Maloney, Kristin Chenoweth
Director: Eric Stoltz
Screenwriter: Benjamin August
Producers: Shaun Sanghani, Sandy Stern
Executive producers: Lee Broda, John D. Hickman, Scott Levenson, Jordan Yale Levine, Sharyn Steele
Director of photography: Gavin Fisher
Production designer: Mark Bankins
Editor: Andreas Fehrle
Composer: Brian Bryne
Costume designer: Caryn Frankenfield

108 minutes