Chris Colfer is best known for his recurring role as Kurt on Fox’s “Glee,” but he’s more than a pretty face with a fine small screen gotta-sing, gotta-dance attitude. His new film, which world premiered at last April’s Tribeca Film Festival, and has been available via video-on-demand, including Apple’s iTunes Store since December, was presented on Sunday night around the country for a one-off streaming screening (it enters a short, select-market theatrical run on Friday, January 11th), which was followed by an interactive Q+A with Colfer. This seems to be a new approach for building word of mouth, although it helps if the film is worth watching in the first place.
Last month Paramount tried the tactic at a pre-release screening a few weeks before opening a major holiday release, followed by a ‘chat’ with its stars Barbra Streisand and Seth Rogen. Their film, “The Guilt Trip,” was pretty lame and most of the crowd left before the post-film event. Having just returned from the special screening of “Struck by Lightning,” the reaction to the film by the crowd, and myself, was very positive and heartwarming. The audience, 95% female (Kurt fans, no doubt), with maybe 6 guys (including two critics), stayed through the p.r. session, eager to see if their twittered-fed questions might get answered. I suspect the absence of a sizable male crowd was due, in part, to the Redskins playoff game (which, sadly, ended poorly for the home team here in D.C., ending minutes before the screening started).
Colfer wrote his script four years ago at the ripe old age of 18 (one year after the character he plays, small town high school senior Carson Phillips, has died from the eponymous fate). His death probably coincided with that of John Hughes, whose movies about teenage angst seem to have inspired Colfer. The dialogue is witty, the actors allowed to shine in well-written roles, and the script allows Colfer to grow a role outside his popular television persona.
Carson, now deceased, embarks on a sadly comic recollection (“You’ve seen my end… and my funeral service sucks”) of his under-appreciated, over-achieving, increasingly-frustrated life in backwater Clover (Population: 9,525), that lead up to his departure from the living. His daily grind revolves around a broken family, fellow students who have about as much dedication to education as a wad of gum stuck underneath a desk, a guidance counselor (Angela Kinsey, a.k.a. Angela on “The Office”) with the brain the size of a peanut, and an urgent need to get into Northwestern University, before becoming editor of The New Yorker. Cliques abound, and Colfer plays amusingly with the stereotypes, which are captured on camcorder by his friend Malerie (the ever-rising-to-the-occasion Rebel Wilson).
Sheryl, Colfer’s semi-reclusive, pill-popping, boozy, and eternally depressed mom (brilliantly played by Allison Janney) constantly berates herself for having a son. “Never have a kid to save a marriage. It does not work.” Sonny boy has apparently been dealing with this ever since his father, Neal (Dermot Mulroney), a ne’er-do-well, spineless realtor, stormed out on the family five years earlier. He’s shacked up with a newly pregnant girlfriend, April (Christina Hendricks “Drive,” “Mad Men”), a pharmacist who fills Sheryl’s too many prescriptions.
Eventually April learns that Sheryl is Neal’s ex. Neal provides a sufficiently lame excuse to explain why he hid this embarrassment from his hopeful new bride. He also neglected to mention he had a 17-year-old son. Although Hendricks’ role is small, it has a natural warmth despite her choice of loser b.f. You are hopeful (I can see a spin-off built around her character) that she’ll eventually realize that dealing with either of Carson’s parents can be toxic to your emotional health. I’d also include in this sequel Polly Bergen’s role as Carson’s grandmother, a dementia victim who only recalls her grandson’s sadness.
Meanwhile, as Carson fails to drum up interest in a literary journal (to better his college admission chances), it’s only after various happenstance stumblings upon flagrantly embarrassing situations (in bathrooms, on the web) with the leaders of the student body (cheerleader, drama geek, yearbook editor, goth girl, foreign exchange student, etc.), and several dimwitted faculty members, that Carson and Malerie figure out there is only one opportunistic solution to their predicament: Serial extortion (i.e., Clovergate). Write something, anything, for the magazine, or fear the threat of exposure.
So, following a similar theme found in Alexander Payne’s “Election,” but with less darkness and a tad more sadness, director Brian Dannelly is back for only his second feature (after his cult 2004 hit “Saved!“), although he has been directing episodes for some of television’s more offbeat series, such as “Weeds,” “Pushing Daisies,” and “United States of Tara.” He seemed destined to helm Colfer’s bleakly funny teenage dramedy.
For the folks who look for goofs, there’s a scene between Sheryl and her physician, Dr. Wealer, but the diplomas on the wall behind him identify only Dr. Edwin Papazian, DDS, a real dentist (thanks for letting the crew use your office) in Winnetka.
There are some nice spins on old high school clichés and enough off-center characters and good, occasionally great, dialogue (including lines about Betty Crocker/Betty Ford and bitchforks) that should make “Struck by Lightning” one of the year’s early hits in the art house market. You might also end up whistling parts of Jake Monaco’s infectious score as you leave the theater (on watch it on television or your computer).