A good dark comedy can be a blessing in disguise. It’s a way for an audience to embrace and enjoy the darker sides of themselves vicariously through the terrible acts of others. Even better, since it’s all imaginary, who cares how much the audience revels in the mayhem. If this sounds like a good time to you, then you’re going to want to check out the Bob Sáenz-written, Jay Lowi-directed Extracurricular Activities which tracks a high-level intellect high schooler who’s set up a business killing horrible parents for their kids. Less blood-soaked than you’d expect from the premise, this smart, funny, dark romp won’t keep you up at night, but it will delight you from beginning to end.
Reagan Collins (Colin Ford) is your atypical high schooler. He loves his parents, doesn’t drink alcohol, rarely goes to parties, and spends most of his time studying. When he’s not preparing for upcoming tests, he’s a peer counselor for his classmates, a much needed service as several parents in the school community have suffered life-ending accidents. Slowly, Detective Cliff Dawkins (Timothy Simons) realizes that the accidents around town all have one thing in common – Reagan – and a cat-and-mouse game begins. Dawkins believes Reagan to be a cold-blooded murderer, but everyone else just sees an average teenager. Both Reagan and Cliff have a lot to lose, so it comes down to who wants to win more.
Extracurricular is just self-aware enough to not take itself seriously, yet it’s clever enough to remain at least one step ahead of the audience. Much of this comes from the way Sáenz’s script structures the story and the performances which execute it. For much of the beginning of the film, the accidents which dispatch two sets of parental figures aren’t tied or connected to any particular person. It’s not until the story’s well underway that Reagan is officially outed to the audience. Once the audience confirms he’s behind things, we get to see Reagan at work. Sometimes it’s as simple as fungal research, where another requires the application of chemistry, physics, and environmental studies. (Who said doing homework wouldn’t get you anywhere?) Impressively, even as the set-ups become more elaborate, a symptom of situational need not due to manufacturing tension, Reagan’s machinations are grounded in undeniable plausibility. Knowing that Reagan is behind things is not a surprise in any way, and the script never goes to any extreme lengths to try hide it. Instead, prolonging that aspect enables the audience to get a sense of the world Reagan lives in, one in which the affluent abuse their kids without thought or concern, making their own demises somehow justified. Except Extracurricular is intended to be a thriller, not just a dark comedy, and it is. As soon as it removes one mystery, it adds another. It’s a mystery of who’s smarter and this is where the performances really take over.
There’re multiple players within the cast, all of whom are used precisely. The narrative does eventually trim itself down to a handful of players. Some notable cast members, like Danielle Macdonald (Dumplin’/Patti Cake$) and Sarah Hay (Braid), lend credibility to the film by their mere presence. Others, like Gary Hudson and Darlene Vogel, who play Reagan’s parents, offer insight into Reagan himself. In a handful of scenes the actors convey a loving, supportive household and a few glimpses into the type of person Reagan is: culinarily gifted, tight with rules, uncomfortable with the opposite sex to the point of avoidance. In their few interactions, Reagan never seems like he’s putting on airs, a trait which he carries over when dealing with authority figures. Speaking of, Ford is fantastic as the intellectual and pragmatic murderer. He’s got the razor-sharp looks of a young Patrick Bateman and is believable when presenting feats of science acumen you’d expect from Sherlock Holmes. In fact, Ford’s best gift to the film is that whether the character’s engaging with Detective Dawkins or chatting with love interest Mary-Alice Walker (the charming Ellie Bamber), his inflection never shifts. No oscillation in vocal delivery or physical posture. Ford always presents Reagan the same, which means his intent is always in question. Rounding out the main cast is Dawkins, played with increasing erraticism throughout the film by Simons. The script sets up Dawkins as tightly wound and a little full of himself from the first scene he’s in, and Simons infuses him with just enough arrogance and sympathy that you almost want him to catch Reagan. Almost. The fact that the audience won’t want to see that happen is a credit to the script and performances. However, this is Reagan’s story, so as the audience may desire Dawkins to stop Reagan, and may even begin to predict ways in which this may happen, they should prepare for the unexpected. Everything is a guessing game until the end.
Like all good dark comedies, the thrills come when things get grisly, but the laughs come in the way the mayhem plays out. None of the supposed victims are innocent, so every death offers zero-guilt. Impressively, each death is also well thought-out, no matter how seemingly implausibly executed, within the context of the characters it is all believable. For instance, time and again, the script presents Reagan as thoughtful and precise. There’s a brief sequence where he even performs advanced chemistry for his teacher to prove why his answer on a test was accurate and the instructor is wrong. Moments like these merely highlight how bright and methodical Reagan is. Other moments, like when Reagan engages with his parents, demonstrate that he’s not a sociopath, incapable of understanding human emotion. Instead, he values his relationship with his parents. So much so that it’s hard not to wonder if some off-screen moment tied to them served as the inspiration for Reagan’s entrepreneurial enterprise.
If you wanted to distill Extracurricular Activities down, to find a way to compare it to other films of note, then it might be easy to describe the film as possessing familiar elements of Heathers, Seven Psychopaths, Serial Mom, and the aforementioned American Psycho. Sáenz’s script and Lowi’s direction puts such a strong focus on keeping everything within Extracurricular grounded, that even when the personalities of the characters become larger-than-life in their excess, the world itself doesn’t bloat with them. This makes the narrative escalation maintain constant plausibility, even at its most reality-breaking. But then, where’s the fun in taking in something a little macabre, if it doesn’t push things a bit.
In select theaters beginning May 17th, 2019.
Available on digital beginning June 4th, 2019.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.