Ben Wolfinsohn's High School Record, shot for a paltry $6,500, combines the poignant teenage bonding themes of Stand and Deliver with the dazed loopiness of Napoleon Dynamite. Like the best and worst of its ilk, the jokes center on self-humiliation, but in this case, the kids (played sincerely by mostly non-professional actors and little-known indie rockers) are linked through equal unease, regardless of their social status. It's a sweetly egalitarian look at perhaps the most heavily dissected lifeform in the film industry.
High School Record, which was never released theatrically (but was shown at film festivals as early as 2005), isn't a studied denigration or glorification of teen angst. Like the two socially clueless students (Susan Estrada and Nicholas Gitomer, of the Los Angeles rock band My Little Red Toe) shooting a documentary on four classmates, the film retains its own sense of charming awkwardness and scattershot energy, observing its principal characters with both appreciation and shy distance.
The camerawork is less shaky than in most pseudo-documentaries, not least because these young filmmakers are real-life AV club nerds: they know plenty about camera placement and other technicalities, but know very little about when to say "cut." The camera freezes dutifully on their individual subjects long after they've run out of substantive things to say, like when unlikely couple Caleb (Dean Spunt) and Sabrina (Jenna Thornhill) argue, until both are left silent, about whether to have sex in the woods. These scenes give High School Record its biting, empathetic humor.
Like Napoleon Dynamite, Caleb is a tall, stringy geek with messy hair, uneven spectacles, and a wardrobe practically begging for ridicule — it includes tinfoil shorts — but unlike Napoleon, Caleb is always trying to stand out, an unapologetic embracer of the unique. The lack of self-consciousness somewhat attracts but mostly repels Sabrina, a dowdy, pimply, more taciturn sort who is usually condescending when the two are not having sex. In the woods, Caleb takes his shirt off and, with zero finesse, tries to cajole her. Then he promptly decides against it: no sex, he says, until "you go to a movie with me or let me cook for you."
That Sabrina dumps Caleb the next day at swim practice, because she's "always yelling" at him -- and then, in response to his distaste, swims off to get her heart rate back up -- shows how much Wolfinsohn knows about real teenagers. In many other scenes, the characters' self-abasement turns to self-aggrandizement within seconds, and compassion melts into unconscious cruelty. But you never dislike these kids, even at their pettiest. It's as if they're as aware as Wolfinsohn is of how temporary, how fleeting, how utterly meaningless high school is, and so why get bogged down in, like, human connection?
At the same time, they maintain a youthful naïveté. Even the requisite thug Eddie (Bobby Sandoval), prone to swearing, trespassing, and other macho theatrics, gets to show his true, more innocent colors when his car stalls in the midst of trying to pick up two comely girls. "Can I borrow your cell phone?" he asks with the same panache he employed to seduce them. "I gotta call my mom. You guys can ride with us." The fourth teen on display, Erin (Jennifer Clavin), is least memorable perhaps because she has the most grace, but there's genuine sadness showing through her endless boasting of hygienic superiority.
Adults are scarcely seen here, though ex-Minutemen and Firehose member Mike Watt -- handlebar mustache and all -- gives a brief, heartfelt performance as Sabrina's father, who is suffering from cancer. But the standout "adult" performance belongs to Becky Stark, playing the kooky drama teacher Ms. Farewell. Decked out in flowing hippie skirts, with a cherubic if pockmarked face that makes her appear scarcely older than her students, Farewell is woefully incapable of disciplining. Stark gives her the perfect mixture of repressed hurt, phony earthiness, and lilting falsetto timbre as she sings her useless songs to these jaded kids.