Keith Gordon's 1988 adaptation of Robert Cormier's controversial young-adult novel The Chocolate War is easy to admire but hard to love. In a stunningly assured directorial debut, the former actor surveys his grim milieu from a chilly sociological distance that's hypnotic yet distancing, impressive yet off-putting. It's apparent from early on that The Chocolate War is about much more than just a troubled fundraising effort: The ugly, politics-choked world of a Catholic high school, ruled by a secret society called "The Vigils," serves as a harsh microcosm of the outside world.
Ilan Mitchell-Smith stars as a melancholy student who upsets the school's fragile ecosystem when he disobeys the dictates of both The Vigils and power-mad teacher John Glover by refusing to participate in his school's annual chocolate sale. Glover empowers The Vigils to act as the school's enforcers by punishing Mitchell-Smith for his transgression, but his plan backfires when Mitchell-Smith becomes a folk hero and it becomes apparent that Vigils leader Wallace Langham has sinister, cryptic motives of his own.
The film gets much of its resonance from the fact that the desperately unhappy Glover and Langham are victims of the very system they're propagating. Glover is poisoned by his insatiable ambition, while the effete, delicate Langham isn't any happier with the school's secret network of power than Mitchell-Smith. But while Glover and Langham's characters boast an almost Shakespearian complexity, Mitchell-Smith comes off as little more than the fuzzy, indistinct embodiment of rebellion. His refusal to go along with the program is a variation on Bartleby the Scrivener's famous mantra of "I prefer not to." (But then, the recent adaptation of Bartleby didn't exactly rocket its title character into the pantheon of dynamic cinematic heroes, either.) In the paranoid, mixed-up world of The Chocolate War, the hero's ostensible moment of triumph serves as his ultimate defeat. Even more disconcertingly, Gordon ends the film by suggesting that the school's new social order could be even pettier and more dehumanizing than the hopelessly corrupt, perverse old one it's replacing.
Key features: An engaging, affectionate audio commentary from Gordon, who refreshingly chastises himself for youthful bursts of pretension, especially during fantasy sequences.