This review was corrected on July 25, 2001.
Dorothy and Toto might not be so enthusiastic about returning to today’s Kansas, as depicted with malice a forethought by native son Steve Balderson in the dark comedy “Pep Squad.” First-time helmer — who also produced, wrote, edited and even designed the very fitting costumes — has obviously boned up on Warhol and Waters (especially “Cry Baby”), and takes a few hints from De Palma’s “Carrie.” Result is choppy and derivative in places, accomplished and funny in others. More gung-ho than ho-ho, pic, whose natural habitat is drive-ins, midnight shows, cable and video, suggests that 23-year-old helmer will “graduate” and bring home even better grades next time.
There are eight candidates for senior class prom queen at Oak Hill High … but not for long. With a Gen-X student body by way of every reference from “Rebel Without a Cause” to “Less Than Zero,” flavored by the moral responsibility of “Sid and Nancy,” the bucolic pleasures of senior year are pulling the fire alarm, phoning in bomb threats and hit-and-run driving. Other extracurricular activities include kidnapping the principal and getting nasty blood stains out of white picket fences. (“I killed the principal … Now I’ll never graduate.”) Action, which conveys the alternating boredom and urgency of teen life, unspools to a very catchy, tongue-in-cheek ominous score by Concrete Blonde founder Johnette Napolitano.
Pic’s greatest pleasures arise out of the deep-seated and amusingly caricatured rivalry between retro-busybody Terra (Amy Kelly) and raging hard-nosed bitch Cherry (Brooke Balderson); both roles would have been a nice fit for the young Divine. Thesping is awkward to utilitarian, with occasional sparks, but everybody looks their part. Although deliberate displays of poor taste are all in good fun, sequence where Cherry opens sniper fire on the school yard is queasy-making in light of recent senseless school-yard killings.
A few too many lazy speeches about “changing things” and “making a difference” artificially slow down the action, and a decadent the-folks-are-away party, complete with artistic topless gyrating in the hot tub, feels tacked on in the middle. But overall, a lot of incidents on display here will have a nostalgic wish-fulfillment component for anyone — popular or unpopular — who ever went to high school.