The discomfort we find in sleeping in unfamiliar environments is utterly naturalistic. Without familiar smells, shapes, or sounds, the unknown deepens, opening our psyche up to terrors that make our skin crawl as a means of self-preservation. This alone would make for a solid foundation for any horror film, but adding a dash of preternatural night terrors sets the stage for something truly nefarious. Unfortunately for Boarding School, writer/director Boaz Yakin’s (Remember The Titans) latest work, despite containing all the pieces of a horrific tale, nothing coalesces in a satisfactory way.
Able to recognize the difference between what’s real and what’s imaginary, Brooklyn teen Jacob (Luke Prael) is terrified to go to sleep at night, not because his imagination runs wild, but because a mysterious bloodied woman haunts his dreams. His mother Isabel (Samantha Mathis) shrugs it off as nothing more than budding teenage rebellion, while his seemingly sympathetic stepfather Davis (David Aaron Baker) tries to mend the rift between mother and son. After a series of out-of-character events befall Jacob following the death of his estranged grandmother, Jacob is sent to a boarding school for misfits run by Doctor Sherman (Will Patton) and his wife. Terrible mishaps start to befall the students all while Jacob’s dreams become more vivid and violent, forcing him to face his internal fears in order to survive dangerous external threats.
There’s nothing more frustrating for an audience than a story with too many moving pieces and not enough focus. When moving in concert, a high number of narrative threads are a powerful means of storytelling. As each thread is pulled, the characters move through the story, building tension and drama with each new addition. That’s just not the case with Boarding School as each new narrative thread drags down the momentum of the story with mostly unnecessary plot developments, while never connecting any of them in a meaningful way. For instance, the phantasm that appears to haunt Jacob is neither integral to the core narrative nor to the development of who Jacob is as a person. The truth of the apparition is not something Jacob himself digs into; rather, it’s intended as some kind of thematic tool for the audience as Jacob tries to survive his circumstances. The revelation of his connection to the spirit – which the audience will figure it out in an instant – is far more interesting in connection to Jacob’s struggles, yet nearly zero time is spent on it. To make matters worse, the lack of concrete exploration on this particular thread makes Jacob’s later appearances in drag appear less narratively motivated and more because the script wills it, resulting in the sensation of feeding a nasty stereotype of cross-dressing in cinema.
Compounding matters are the performances from the cast which are uneven in tone from the rest of the film. The whole of Boarding School emits an aura of the 1940s through the lighting, décor, and estate design, all which infuse the film with a sense of timeliness amid modernity. It certainly aids in supporting a few of the narrative threads mentioned previously, which the performances should feed into and off of. Unfortunately, the inability of the younger actors to connect with the material results in largely wooden and dissociated performances. While an argument can be made for Prael’s Jacob and Sterling Jerins’s Christine performances as being instrumental in properly characterizing one child uncertain of how he sees himself (Jacob) and the other being coldly cruel (Christine), the fact that neither actor seems to be doing more than line readings makes it innumerably more difficult to connect with the characters and their journey. Conversely, the performances from Mathis, Patton, and Tammy Blanchard, as Mrs. Sherman, exude the perfect sense of adult indifference and disconnection that children often experience from their adolescent point of view. Patton, in particular, gives a performance that rides the line of gentle caretaker and malevolence that makes his Doctor Sherman a strange and delicious kind of fun to observe as the audience remains unsure of his intent up until the final moments.
Ultimately, Boarding School is an incredibly baffling film. There is too much going on narratively without enough pay-off and there are performances that don’t grip in any way which all make for an experience in which audiences will feel every moment of the 110-minute runtime. This is truly a shame as Yakin’s script is rife will clever ideas and concepts, including a shift which, while expected within the genre, goes to such an unexpected place that audiences will wish everything leading up to that moment had been equally captivating. Sometimes an ending can save a film, making the cinematic journey worthwhile for an audience. Unfortunately, that’s not the case here.
Final Score: 2.5 out of 5.