Whether or not I was always such an acerbic, sardonic little twerp is up to my friends to determine, but I know that I discovered the work of David Sedaris the year before I entered high school. It was kind of timely, in a way, as it would certainly inform my worldview during high school. iTunes was having an audiobook sale and his collection of essays Me Talk Pretty One Day caught my eye, so I bought it and never looked back. For a while, I wrote my own essays, shamelessly aping his style of humor, but like many imitators of Sedaris, they usually lacked the grasp on humanity he inexplicably had. Some call it smarm, but I think it’s merely fascinating introspection. I think it would be slightly disingenuous to call Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s adaptation of Sedaris’s short story C.O.G. (collected in Naked) “hackneyed”, but, as I mentioned before, the critical thing it lacks is that humanity.
I watched Ryan Murphy’s Glee for too long. Realistically, it was probably for about three and a half seasons. One of their most problematic characters was their most charismatic: Kurt Hummel, the all caps GAY character in the ensemble was played with snark and what could only be some autobiographical pain by Chris Colfer. (He sadly is, was, and always will be a lousy stereotype incapable of carrying a dramatic story line that doesn’t have to do with him being gay.) Colfer has, in recent “years”, added writer and screenwriter to his resume, with the release of a children’s fantasy book and the release of the film Struck by Lightning. What could Colfer possibly add to the “angsty, sarcastic, alienated teens desperate to get out of high school” sub-genre? Not much, really.
Struck by Lightning concerns the life of Clover, California resident (against his will, no doubt) Carson Phillips as he blackmails his way into being admitted to Northwestern University, by way of the creation of a school literary magazine. Meanwhile, his mother (Alison Janney) is falling apart, his grandmother is suffering from dementia, and the father who abandoned him (Dermot Mulroney) is about to get married to a lovely young pharmacist (January Jones). And no one really wants to be a part of his club anyways.
A lot of it feels very autobiographical, in a slightly Woody Allen-esque sense (and Allen would be quick to deny any of his work is based on his life). Colfer grew up in a small town, Clovis, California; he was president of the Writing Club, which no one went to (much like in the film); and he was basically an outsider. If he was bullied in high school, he clearly has some words to say to them, manifested in the form of bitter, sardonic, slightly pious, acerbic Carson.
In essence, the story is fairly conventional. But I suppose you can say that Colfer’s voice is kind of unique. The biting one liners are often clever, but there’s so much resentment underneath the sarcasm that it does a mediocre job walking the fine line between clever and just mean spirited. Years ago, an acquaintance of mine had an AOL scree name “ClevernessofMe”, and if Carson were to have a Twitter handle, it would probably be that. So much of the humor in the film is funny, and Colfer’s delivery is spot on, but it doesn’t translate as well as it should on screen. When insulting the low-IQ peers around him, it sounds like that these zingers would be better fit to an essay or even a blog. It’s no wonder why people dislike him or are totally apathetic about his club or literary magazine.
For, you see, it’s hard to gain sympathy from the audience when you are so judgment and self-righteous. Yes, there is some mild character development in the film, but very little of it concerns Carson’s own issues of his holier than thou attitude. Occasionally the jokes strain very hard to footing, which feels jarring. Perfectly enjoyable one liners, but at times, they seem like filler or that you can tell Colfer is trying very hard to be sardonic. Most of the time it works, but it also often works in a very self-aware way, which becomes an issue. It becomes irritating after a while and it ends up making his character hard to root for because he spends so much time zinging and not feeling.
That isn’t to say there isn’t emotion in the film. There is. And it is here where the film falls into the more conventional areas. Carson has dreams of becoming the editor of the New Yorker and contributing to a plethora of various reputable periodicals. That drive and desire to attain his dreams, and to get out of the small town that he wants nothing to do with, pretty much makes up the plot of a majority of teen films. The journalistic aspirations don’t make Caron or his story different, nor does the smarminess. We’ve seen that in anything from Easy A to Mean Girls, from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off to any number of John Hughes films. It would not be an issue if the film did not bother to try to excavate new ground or tread the old ground like it was new, but it does, and does so without attempting to seem different. It just files along with the tropes of every other high school movie without bothering to standout.
Alison Janney is winning, though, as Caron’s mother. Her performance is, at least. The characterization, however, is problematic. As problematic as her son’s. Janney has always been solid in terms of her comic timing. She’s a sharp, smart actress, and she inhabits the world weary mother role extremely well, so no points off for her. Colfer’s characterization of her is odd though, and as a family unit, they’re not so much dysfunctional as they are a terrible example of a family unit in film. Colfer tries to balance the damaged and hurt Sheryl with the smart, “I know about this world” Sheryl, but it makes for an uneven characterization. It is hinted at that she might be an alcoholic with depression and anxiety issues. We get a couple glimpses at these manifestations, but they are, for the most part, played for laughs. Yet, Colfer feels the need to make her character as self-righteous as her son. Both of them butt heads continually throughout the film (as any mother/son pairing in real life), but we only see Carson being a smartass without seeing how “terrible” his mother is. We are never really given a reason why Caron is as cynical as he is in terms of his relationship with his mother. At the same time, Colfer tries to humanize her not by showing her actual struggles but through exposition as she talks with a doctor about abandonment and her various prescriptions. Instead of giving more insight into that, she’s seen warning her son and the young pharmacist about the disappointments in life. She knows better, just like her son.
Putting the two together is, thus, very strange and unsatisfying. What Colfer has written is two characters that are at once broken and self-loathing, but deeply narcissistic (especially in Carson’s case). It is probably their dignity that they don’t want to lose, but that nevertheless makes for bad writing. It makes it so that there’s lack of emotional closure at the end of the film for Sheryl’s arc, and that makes the ending particularly painful.
But what Colfer does get right is the writing process. I can identify with Carson’s attitude, but more than that, I can identify with how Colfer describes writing. Somewhat sappily, it’s described as being “struck by lightning”; that satisfaction and rapid fire ability to produce something that’s in your head and put it on the page (or screen). Colfer is actually able to make that feel as real as anything in the film. For a character whose agenda is ostensibly to piss everyone else with his own humor, he does a magnificent job in inspiring everyone. But, before too long, it becomes overly sentimental. But those few, brief moments of legitimate greatness in the film, when he talks about writing, those are the best Colfer might ever produce.
However, as a “coming-of-age” film, it doesn’t quite work. Self-realization comes at the end of the film, but at what expense. Carson does very little to truly develop beyond his own shortsighted sour attitude. Yes, he’s “learned” something, but the “lesson” feels both heavy handed and yet too insubstantial to warrant its heavy handedness. Even when he is given the chance to make the leap into becoming a person who can be both independent as well as aware of other people’s needs, Carson regresses into being tart and affecting. That Carson and the rest of his peers (who barely develop too) and his mother are left in a fairly stagnant state and, as aforementioned, without the needed emotional closure that this film would inherently need to end it.
At its best, Colfer channels his resentment into clever one liners, but at its worst, the film comes off as self-righteous, self-aware, mean spirited, depressing, and a little conventional. Colfer is funny, sometimes too funny for his own good, and a lot of it would probably make a better novella than a feature length film. Colfer’s problems are less narrative based and primarily character based, essentially robbing his two most important characters of the necessary nuance. But Colfer, good at dialogue, pinpoints the appeal of writing, and on that, he deserves some credit. It does very little to add to the teen genre, but perhaps Colfer might be back with something better in a couple years. Once all that bitterness and sanctimoniousness has subsided, we’ll be as struck with his work as he is.