The idea of doing Dashiell Hammett in a contemporary high school sounds a little like something from Albert Brooks' faux-network preview on an early Saturday Night Live short: "Death Of A Salesman, performed entirely by children!" But Rian Johnson's endlessly clever debut feature Brick isn't kids in baggy suits and fake mustaches, or even Bugsy Malone—it's a flavorful incorporation of adolescent angst into detective fiction. At worst, it could be called a film-school exercise, though from a remarkably precocious student, one who understands the noir genre enough to reconfigure it into something vital and new. Johnson even invents his own hard-boiled language: Nonsensical terms like "reef worm" and "yeg" pepper the rapid-fire dialogue, and as with A Clockwork Orange, they eventually translate in context. It's one of those films that needs to be seen several times to sort out all the intricacies of speech and plotting, but it makes that prospect inviting.
Solidifying his reputation as one of the best actors of his generation, Joseph Gordon-Levitt evokes the pugnacious gumshoes of '40s and '50s noir, but adds a strain of youthful melancholy as a reminder that he's still in high school. Bucking against a series of genre archetypes—including two femmes fatales, a kingpin, and his muscle—Gordon-Levitt pokes his nose into the disappearance of his ex-girlfriend Emilie de Ravin. With tips from his only friend (Matt O'Leary), a bespectacled whiz known simply as The Brain, he goes deep into a dangerous underworld lorded over by Lukas Haas, an intimidating big boss who runs a vigorous drug trade. When Haas' thugs aren't smacking him around, Gordon-Levitt has to contend with a pair of manipulative seductresses, one a rich girl (Nora Zehetner) who runs in dubious social circles, and the other a drama queen (Meagan Good) with questionable intentions.
Shot in 35mm for under $500,000, Brick has a homemade obsessiveness that recalls Primer, another resourceful and densely plotted mindbender that outsmarted its more generously bankrolled Sundance cousins. Filmed mostly during the day with few locations, Brick still manages to be visually arresting, packed with geeky allusions to everything from Raymond Chandler to Blue Velvet. The cross-pollination of genres leads to some hilarious juxtapositions, especially when the adult world comes into the picture: The biggest confrontation in the movie takes place over cereal and an oatmeal cookie, with a cheerfully oblivious mom dishing out the snacks. Brick doesn't necessarily amount to more than ingenuity for its own sake, but in Johnson's hands, that's still a significant sum.