A cleanly told, somewhat old-fashioned college drama about personal integrity and making adult choices, "The Sterling Chase" --- reminiscent of "The Paper Chase" in more than just title --- reps a debut for writer-director Tanya Fenmore that's longer on professional polish than narrative inspiration. Lack of truly edgy content or style, as well as name players, makes this pleasant-enough feature a bit of a stretch as theatrical-release material; it would be a natural fit as tube or rental fare.

A cleanly told, somewhat old-fashioned college drama about personal integrity and making adult choices, “The Sterling Chase” — reminiscent of “The Paper Chase” in more than just title — reps a debut for writer-director Tanya Fenmore that’s longer on professional polish than narrative inspiration. Lack of truly edgy content or style, as well as name players, makes this pleasant-enough feature a bit of a stretch as theatrical-release material; it would be a natural fit as tube or rental fare.

Three central characters are intro’d as nominees for the titular prize — a prestigious annual nod going to one graduating senior who has exemplified “loyalty, integrity and strength” at fictive Ivy League–style Chadley College (locations were shot at Bryn Mawr). It’s a diverse trio, each of whom has private doubts beneath a confident exterior. Alexis (Nicholle Tom), a senator’s daughter, bows to parental pressure in planning an A-list political career — even if that means fencing off any “unsuitable” parts of herself, like the lesbian lover, Chris (Devon Odessa), she now abruptly pinkslips.

Darren (Sean Patrick Thomas), one of few black enrollees on campus, has seemingly been accepted heartily by the frat-like Wolf Club. When roommate and fellow scholarship student Todd (Jack Noseworthy) gets into some funds-absconding trouble, however, the residual suspicion cast on Darren makes him wonder whether he’s only been tolerated all along as a quotient-filling minority member. Brash, smart-mouthed Jenna (Alanna Ubach) has been the campus’s most outspoken feminist and aggressive pursuer of one-night stands. The more earnest interest of longtime friend Matt, aka “Buns” (John Livingston), exposes her vulnerability — she’s hitherto eschewed commitment, even dating, out of a secret fear of being hurt.

During the 48 hours leading up to graduation, these conflicts come to a head, forcing each lead to reshuffle priorities and decide whether they’re strong enough to make some personal sacrifices for the sake of others. Progress is fairly predictable, excepting one rather left-field development involving Chris — who has promptly picked up a new lover in Alexis’ deaf roommate (Andrea Farrell).

Results are entertaining but mild, with a familiar be-true-to-yourself message packing no special punch. Attractive young cast members — severalof whom have ongoing roles in network series this fall, possibly helping pic’s theatrical chances — do solid work. Twenty-five-year-old Fenmore (who began acting in pics and on TV at 7) handles interweaving story threads with confidence and a sure pace, getting glossy production values from her modest budget; David Bridges’ lensing captures the tony Bryn Mawr campus in rather idyllic, slightly soft-focus terms. Not helping the slightly bland tenor is a soundtrack heavy on mediocre alt-rock ballads.

The Sterling Chase

(DRAMA)

Production

A Weinberg Entertainment and Indyssey Entertainment presentation in association with Redwood Communications. Produced by Tanya Fenmore, Katrina S. Pavlos, Cynthia Perez-Brown. Executive producers, Ronald E. Weinberg, Vanessa Wingate. Co-producer, Robert Trehy. Co-executive producers, Milena Rimassa, Lucas E. Devenn. Directed, written by Tanya Fenmore. Story by Fenmore, Jeremy Dauber. Camera (color), David Bridges; editors, David Codron, Edward R. Abroms; music, Mark Adler; music supervisor, Jennifer Pyken; production designer, Norm Dodge; art director, Peggy Hervas; costume designer, Lori "Tin" Jesneck; sound, Ye Zhang; sound supervisor, Dee Dee Davis; sound designer, Glen Auchinachie; assistant director, Matthew Almond. Reviewed at Roxie Cinema, San Francisco, Sept. 17, 1999. (In Mill Valley Film Festival.) Running time: 92 MIN.

With

Melissa ..... Andrea FerrellBuns ..... John Livingston Cathy ..... Irene Ng Todd ..... Jack Noseworthy Chris ..... Devon Odessa Darren ..... Sean Patrick Thomas Alexis ..... Nicholle Tom Jenna ..... Alanna Ubach
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