Even on the scale of a quirky teen indie, the stakes in General Education are remarkably low: Having failed science, high-school senior Chris Sheffield has to finish a 10-day summer class to graduate, while figuring out how to let his father (Larry Miller) know he doesn’t want to continue in the family tradition of competitive tennis playing. The debut feature from Tom Morris, General Education uses this loose structure as a way to assemble a group of affectedly oddball characters and plot digressions into something resembling a coming-of-age tale. The film owes a lot to Napoleon Dynamite, though it could have borrowed more of the underlying sweetness of Jared Hess’ film, and less of other things, like its eyebrow-raising treatment of race.
It’s also significantly harder to root for Sheffield’s character, who isn’t exactly an underdog: He’s the mayor’s son and the recipient of a Benz as a present for the graduation he doesn’t tell his parents he hasn’t yet managed. He’s actually kind of an obnoxious little shit—he labels his strict science teacher (Elaine Hendrix) a dyke for having dared to fail him for not showing up to class to make his final presentation, and has a 13-year-old black self-proclaimed sidekick (Skylan Brooks) he uses as a manservant of sorts. While some of the film’s idiosyncrasies are cute—Sheffield’s theater-geek younger sister is preparing for a mime show and likes to stay in character—others are strenuously unfunny, like a tetherball duel between Sheffield and his main rival (Tom Maden), or a lisping, ascot-wearing college tennis scout who hits on all the players.
There’s so little to General Education that small details invite excessive examination: When the biggest name in the movie is Janeane Garofalo, why waste her in an extraneous, laugh-free side role as the protagonist’s neglected housewife mother? Why include a cutaway gag showing Sheffield offering Brooks up at an earlier science-class presentation and explaining “the dark pigment absorbs sunlight, which is why they’re better at sports”? And why have a hero whose defining quality is his privilege, when the film cribs so heavily from one about a lovable loser? From his effortless romance with classmate Maiara Walsh to his climactic calling on his dad to demand he be allowed an exception to pass summer school, Sheffield never earns sympathy or interest.