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Sophistication is overrated. A movie may be meticulously put together in every detail, but if it doesn’t have a heart, who cares? Exhibit A: “April is my Religion.” Frankly, it’s a mess. It’s awkward, well written at times, just plain silly at others, and amateurish throughout, but it’s all heart, and I can’t get it out of my head.
At first “April is My Religion” looks like it’s going to be a moony story of first love. Thank God, it’s got something different in mind. It’s the story of Jack Wesson (Benjamin Klein), a college student in Engineering, the least social and most difficult of all undergraduate majors. A real altar-boy type, with massive Catholic guilt and little apparent freewill, Jack seems completely committed to staying alone in his dormroom, grinding for the 3.5 GPA he needs in order to keep his much-needed scholarship and avoid the wrath of his stern father. But, the youngster starts down a very different path when his parents force him to share a ride back to the university with next door neighbor Wade (Troy Patrick Turnipseed), a senior who had bullied him years before.
It’s not long before Jack meets Wade’s housemates — a likably argumentative pseudo-intellectual (Jason Contini) and, most important of all, the titular April (Julie Stockhausen) — a shapely, bespectacled near-genius with designs on becoming a NSA spy (take that, “good” Will Hunting!). The trio of seniors introduce Jack to pot and quickly adopt him as something between a good friend and a house mascot. In no time, the once lonely and self-denying Jack is spending more and more time getting blasted with his new pals and falling in serious puppy lust/love/obsession with April. The potent mixture of unrequited love and free access to booze and drugs ultimately threaten Jack’s downfall.
Written, directed, edited and scored by musician Bill Boll (putting him in the tiny group of self-scoring directors that includes John Carpenter, Charlie Chaplin and Prince), “April is My Religion” feels more like the experience of going to school than any film I can remember. The pressure to make good grades or else, the sense of discovery and excitement, the sheer, total panic of incipient adulthood or something…. I don’t know how old Boll is, but the film feels as if he can’t be much older than 25, and that’s a compliment!
A big part of the credit for “April is my Religion” is due leading geek Benjamin Klein. The diminutive Klein (the Jewish Giovanni Ribisi?) seems beleaguered at certain points, but for the most part he gives a hilarious, natural performance that lets us see to see the devil inside the lonely altar boy. Klein’s attempt at his first ever bong hit is hard to describe, but if you’ve had to be told what and where the “carb” is, you’ll definitely relate.
For all its effectiveness, “April is My Religion” veers dangerously close to disaster. Many (okay, most) scenes suffer from lackluster acting from supporting cast members and a some lame jokes pop up from time to time. Worst of all, a crucial confrontation is marred by a massive technical foul-up when characters appear to be yelling away from each other because the filmmakers flouted the dreaded “180 degree rule” of camera placement.
But I don’t care. Defying expectations and coming-of-age clichés by the score, Bill Boll has made a big-hearted, openly naïve film that is definitely not a love story, but which is about love.