Struck By Lightning protagonist Chris Colfer dies in the opening scene, hit by a random lightning bolt as he walks to his car in his high-school parking lot. Then he resignedly narrates from beyond the grave as the film flashes back through the past year of his life. It’s an extreme, unlikely plot choice, meant to help put Struck By Lightning in the league of Heathers-esque black comedy, and possibly to encourage viewers not to take Colfer’s high-school struggles too seriously. But while there’s some ironic potential in the idea of a boy spending his last year of life using any means possible to secure a future he’ll never see, Lightning skims across that idea with a lightness that never hits home, particularly by comparison with some of the film’s heavier melodrama.
Colfer, who also scripted, stars as a slight variant on his Glee character: another perky, beleaguered, expressive overachiever who foresees a stellar career, once he can shake the cowshit off his feet and escape his boring small-town home. But whereas on Glee his ticket to fame is a crystalline falsetto and intimate knowledge of every Broadway musical ever made, in Struck By Lightning, he longs for a glowing writing career, beginning with acceptance at Northwestern University. Hoping to impress the NU admissions board, he starts a school literary journal, which earns nothing but contempt from his shallow, villainous peers. So with the help of spacey writer-wannabe Rebel Wilson (playing a much vaguer, more timid version of her usual brassy diva in the likes of Pitch Perfect), he starts blackmailing them into participating.
Lightning is a funny, fast-moving movie, packed with barbed one-liners, goofy hyperbole, and all the oversized exasperation of teen angst. But it’s too acid, particularly where Colfer is concerned. His character is a self-satisfied, contemptuous pill who always has a bon mot to hand out and who inevitably wins every battle of wits with his mooing classmates, but he comes across as too smug and superior; the film feels like a screenwriter’s revenge against everyone who ever bullied or doubted him. It’s a victory fantasy that doesn’t let the opposition score a single point. Colfer’s script also pushes too far into weepy Hallmark Channel drama via a senile grandma character who can’t recognize Colfer, which lets her inadvertently deliver sentimental yet sharp wisdom about him to his face. And Allison Janney, as Colfer’s depressed, pill-addicted, unsupportive mother, delivers an emotional performance that belongs in a serious drama rather than a playfully tart teen farce. There’s plenty of talent on display in Struck By Lightning, but it isn’t always pulling in the same direction, and Saved! writer-director Brian Donnelly doesn’t exert enough authorial control to make it cohere. Colfer’s career-making work on Glee may have influenced him too heavily as a writer: His debut film has a similar sense of snarky fun, a similar sense of high drama, and a similar difficulty reconciling them.