High School: a teen-stoner movie with weird attention to tiny detail

High School: a teen-stoner movie with weird attention to tiny detail

Crimes: 

  • Making viewers feel like the only sober people in a roomful of revelers high off their asses, wondering what everyone finds so damned funny
  • Drawing out a reasonably clever premise—a valedictorian and a stoner game a surprise drug test by getting their entire school high on pot brownies—into a grueling Altamont of bad comedic vibes
  • Stealing the dignity of respected thespians like Adrien Brody (as a bearded, tatted-up dealer) and Michael Chiklis (as a principal with a sentient hairpiece), who still deliver the funniest performances in the movie

Defender: Executive producer/co-writer/director John Stalberg Jr. 

Tone of commentary: Needlessly technical. For the director of a stoner comedy, Stalberg spends an inordinate amount of time focusing on all the special effects and behind-the-scenes techie minutiae that went into High School, like the ominous digital clouds that roll in overhead, the use of a particularly large zoom lens, the 3-D animated title card, and the hard work the colorist did on the color correction. (And the deck chairs on the Titanic? Stalberg would still be fussing over them as the ship went down.) Stalberg was going for a comedy/thriller twist on ’80s teen movies like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Risky Business, but the commentary makes it sound like getting J.J. Abrams’ colorist and the camera department that did the Transformers movies were most essential in pulling off this feat. 

What went wrong: Stalberg doesn’t make much of the fact that High School was sitting around for two years after its Sundance debut, other than to note that his original song choices had been replaced by less-expensive options. As for the shoot and post-production itself, there were hassles galore. The original score by Harold Faltermeyer (of Beverly Hills Cop fame) had to be scrapped. The November shoot in a Michigan high school was hampered by daily lake-effect snow that had to be removed from the frame, or obscured by Porta Potties. None of the frogs they got for the funny-talking frog scene behaved the way they wanted them to. And one of three crummy stunt vans caught fire, while the actors—who mistook it for fake-fire—had to be hustled out. During the low point in the shoot, a representative from the Michigan Film Commission happened to visit the set at 4 a.m., by which time many in the crew were loopy and drunk and wearing their hair in pink braids—a scene indicating the making-of documentary would look a lot like the movie. 

Comments on the cast: According to Stalberg, many of his actors are “classic.” Curtis Armstrong, a.k.a. Booger from Revenge Of The Nerds? “A classic guy.” Seinfeld’s John O’Hurley, who does the narration on the fake anti-marijuana movie shown in class? “Classic voice.” Chiklis? “Classic.” Stalberg pays respect to all of his actors, especially the game Chiklis and the frighteningly committed Brody, whose drug-dealer wardrobe involved lifting a chinchilla coat from an old woman’s closet. The strangest casting detail, however, belongs to Aliens In America’s Adhir Kalyan, cast as the hero’s cutthroat rival for valedictorian. Stalberg talks about an ADR session where Kalyan had to overdub the line, “Chocolate reminds me of human feces,” but it took him 40 takes to get it right. The oddest detail of this anecdote? Kalyan stripped down in the ADR studio to nothing but knee-high Lakers socks and underwear. 

Inevitable dash of pretention: A few seconds into the commentary, Stalberg notes how a brief shot of a character toking up is “like a Kenneth Anger film,” and the visual references continue from there. An insert shot in a pool scene pays homage to Stanley Kubrick’s Killer’s Kiss, and Kubrick gets another shout-out when Brody and his posse confront a vulnerable female character like Malcolm McDowell and his droogs in A Clockwork Orange. The use of florescent bulbs in a scene where a high old lady hides out in a boys’ bathroom stall is his nod to Alexandre Aja’s High Tension. In all cases, the references aren’t apparent to the viewers. 

Commentary in a nutshell: “What the faculty and entire student body is going through in this movie is gnarly.” 

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