Tanner Hall Dir. Francesca Gregorini & Tatiana von Furstenberg

[Anchor Bay; 2011]

Styles: drama
Others: Lost and Delirious, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants

As with many independent, coming-of-age movies, the temptation exists for the viewer to assume the narrative is based on the filmmakers’ lives. To a certain extent, there’s a degree of intentional fallacy in this: for instance, it may have been interesting once upon a time to know that, like the protagonist of Rushmore, director Wes Anderson produced plays based on popular movies in high school. But, over a decade later, does that lend any depth to our interpretation of the film? Probably not. On the other hand, when we encounter a heartfelt film that brims with affection for its characters, yet somehow leaves them stranded in the wasteland of their own one-dimensionality, the only refuge is in the adage, “I guess you had to be there.” Such is the case with Francesca Gregorini and Tatiana von Furstenberg’s Tanner Hall, which often feels more like a series of reminiscences canned into a feature film.

Fernanda (Rooney Mara) is entering her last year at the eponymous (almost) all-girls boarding school. She looks forward to enjoying her remaining time there with friends Kate (Brie Larson), the “pretty” one who likes to flirt with the male teaching staff, and the much more interestingly named Lucasta (Amy Ferguson), the “artistic” tomboy coming to grips with her sexuality. The arrival of childhood “frenemy” Victoria (Georgia King), a troubled, conniving aristocrat, thwarts this plan as she weasels her way into the group and, to Fernanda’s dismay, her friends’ good graces. However, comfort arrives in the form of Gio (Tom Everett Scott), the husband of Fernanda’s family friend who lives nearby the campus and just happens to be dissatisfied with his domesticity in the idyllic placidity of the New England suburbs.

The film’s major flaw lies in the directors’ attempt to force their characters into a coherent narrative with a corresponding emotional arc for each of the four girls, rather than simply letting them exist in a series of anecdotes, which would’ve allowed the film to explore the unique traits of its protagonists and the world in which they live. For instance, Fernanda’s first introduction to Gio could have simply been an unexpectedly pleasant day, a chance encounter with sexual undertones that serves as a rumination about her role on the cusp of adulthood. It instead becomes an overly moralized married man/young girl situation that offers little we have not seen elsewhere. In a very similar vein, Kate’s teasing, erotically-charged pranks on her teacher could simply explore an interesting aspect of life in an all-girls’ school, rather than teaching her a hackneyed dramatic “lesson” when the teacher tries to reciprocate. Even the film’s opening scene, which depicts a young Fernanda watching as Victoria lets her grandmother’s prized pet bird escape from its cage, could have served as a dreamlike prelude rather than the ultimate explanation for the conflict (and subsequent resolution thereof) between the two girls.

Despite this, Tanner Hall does offer a few striking visuals and manages to breathe some life into its characters through the performances of the actors. The larger question the film raises is more about the state of independent film itself, which seems to increasingly resemble Hollywood’s younger (but hopefully still commercially viable) sibling. Why else would the film try to weave such a personal vision as the filmmakers seem to have into such hackneyed packaging, rife with cliché and recycled storylines? Perhaps it’s time to revisit Kevin Smith’s Sundance rant or to start seriously considering the new claim that all the interesting characters (and to some extent, actors, writers and directors) have moved to television.

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