School days offer bored kids the opportunity to imagine wild scenarios about notable teachers. Students love to speculate on the personal lives of their instructors and wonder what goes on after the bell. What if the rumors turn out to be true? That’s the scenario director Maureen Bharoocha (Golden Arm) and co-writers Becca Flinn and Zak White take to the nth degree in The Prank. In the late ‘90s, Kevin Williamson created a brand out of writing screenplays that seemed ripped from the pages of a young adult Lois Duncan or Christopher Pike paperback, with films like Scream, Teaching Mrs. Tingle, and The Faculty acknowledging that even school halls aren’t always safe. Bharoocha upgrades this formula for the digital age and introduces veteran actor Rita Moreno (looking fabulous at age 90!) to a new generation. It’s a diverting, if not entirely memorable, viewing experience.
Overachiever Ben (Connor Kalopsis; Outmatched) is focused on getting into his college of choice and has a shot at a scholarship for exemplary grades. When Mrs. Wheeler (Rita Moreno), the tough-as-nails physics teacher, threatens to fail the whole class if a suspected cheater doesn’t come forward, Ben asks his computer-savvy but unmotivated best friend Tanner (Ramona Young; Never Have I Ever) to help him come up with a scheme that will dispose of Wheeler temporarily — long enough to get his midterm grades sent off intact. Tanner uses her skills to create a deepfake video that capitalizes rumors already in existence and frames Wheeler for the murder of a former student. To their surprise, it works…but a little too well. Things spiral out of control with journalists and the police taking the lark seriously, and Ben begins to feel guilty for putting anyone in this position, even a battle-axe like Wheeler. But as Ben tries to clean up the shrapnel from this social experiment gone wrong, he begins to suspect that a crime has been committed. Or is this just his imagination going wild?
Bharoocha, Flinn, and White ground this preposterous scenario by leaning into the pull of scandal and fake news. Spreading a rumor is as easy as pushing a button. In this era of deepfake technology, social media influencers, and socially-engineered rumors, anyone can be a victim. Rita Moreno, clearly having a Renaissance after starring in her own biopic (Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It), and appearing in Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story, plays against type as the mercurial teacher whom all the students fear. Moreno’s performance grounds the film, and she’s clearly having the time of her life being the villain for once.
It would be difficult for anyone to shine next to Moreno’s charisma, but Kalopsis and Young do their best to eke out a decent amount of chemistry as platonic besties. Kalopsis plays the rather lackluster overachiever and doesn’t make much of an impression, but Young brings the same quirky charm and natural sense of comedic timing to The Prank that she delivered in Never Have I Ever. Rounding out the cast are veteran actors Kate Flannery (The Office) as Loretta the lunch lady, Keith David (The Thing) as Principal Henderson, Jon Kimmel (South Park) as Joe the school janitor, and Meredith Salenger (The Journey of Natty Gann) as Julie, Ben’s mom.
The plot walks the line between humor and horror, leaning more heavily on the macabre in the second half. The first half of the film is the strongest, with Ben and Tanner coming up with a ridiculous scenario and executing said plan. Bharoocha’s background as a writer and director of shorts and episodic TV shows (Saved by the Bell; Drama Club) works well by capturing a viewer’s attention right away and creating a scenario. As the movie progresses, the writing begins to sag, with many of the characters stuck in one-note jokes, like Loretta’s obsession with the cafeteria’s chicken finger inventory. Not all of the humor lands, and the story begins to run out of juice. Luckily, the last act offers just enough air to end things with a bang.
Overall, the film works well as a showpiece for Moreno and is a comedy thriller that will interest mainly teen viewers, as well as adults who remember the awkwardness of school angst all too well.
Screening during the 2022 SXSW Film Festival.
SXSW Screening Information:
*Sunday, March 13th, Screening @ 11:45 am CT, ZACH Theatre
*Monday, March 14th, Screening Online @ 9 am CT
*Tuesday, March 15th, Screening @ 8:39 pm CT, Alamo Lamar B
*Thursday, March 17th, Screening @ 2:45 pm CT, Alamo Lamar E
For more information, head to the official SXSW The Prank webpage.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.