If an energetic, smarter-than-expected teen comedy with a modestly profiled cast got released in January a month before the Oscars, how much money could it hope to make? That's the multiple-choice question facing this good-natured caper comedy, which should receive considerably better-than-average grades from audiences.

If an energetic, smarter-than-expected teen comedy with a modestly profiled cast got released in January a month before the Oscars, how much money could it hope to make? That’s the multiple-choice question facing “The Perfect Score,” a good-natured caper comedy from “Varsity Blues” director Brian Robbins, which should receive considerably better-than-average grades from audiences, assuming Paramount can entice them to sign up.

Although not quite Ivy League material, this high-concept pic about a group of teens who conspire to steal answers to the SAT test possesses considerable charm and more than a few laughs after getting past a rocky opening. It also furthers Scarlet Johansson’s rep as one of the most effortlessly winsome actresses to come along in some time, explaining why she appears destined to be cast in every third movie that’s released until further notice.

Despite a more timely reference to “Dawson’s Creek,” “The Perfect Score” owes more to another cultural touchstone alluded to within the film, “The Breakfast Club,” inasmuch as the premise involves a mismatched gang of high schoolers who, once brought together, bond in unexpected (if mostly predictable) ways. In that respect, it’s not too much of a reach to peg this as a “Breakfast Club” for the current crop of SAT takers, who hadn’t been born, depressingly enough, when John Hughes’ ode to teen angst was released in 1985.

At the movie’s center is Kyle (the appealing Chris Evans), whose dreams of attending the right college and becoming an architect are being thwarted by subpar SAT scores. With best buddy Matty (Bryan Greenberg), a slacker who simply wants to do well enough to join his girlfriend at Maryland U., he begins to hatch a plan to pilfer the answers and prevent the “suckass test” from short-selling his future.

The scheme begins to take shape thanks to Francesca (Johansson), the angry daughter of a wealthy exec at the testing company. Filling out the not-so-dirty half-dozen are Anna (Erika Christensen, best-known for “Traffic”), a straight-A student who froze up on the exam; Desmond (real-life NBA standout Darius Miles), who needs to achieve a modest score in order to play college ball; and Roy (hilarious newcomer Leonardo Nam), a pothead who stumbles into their midst and winds up absconding with most of the movie’s laughs.

At first, “The Perfect Score” feels a bit burdened by the need to rationalize the plot, as the students rail at how standardized testing impedes their various ambitions. Yes, so no one much liked having to take the SAT, we pretend to feel your pain, now quit whining and get over it.

Gradually, however, the characters take on some welcome depth, and Nam’s Roy jump-starts the whole exercise — a kind of latter-day Jeff Spicoli, to reference another 20-plus-year-old teen movie, “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.”

As a producer of TV shows such as “Smallville,” Robbins knows how to calibrate such material for the teen audience without sending adults racing for the exits. That said, this is clearly an acne-eyed-view of the world, with Tyra Ferrell, as Desmond’s mom, essentially emerging as the only adult with more to say than the parents in a Charlie Brown cartoon.

Buoyed by an ever-present pop soundtrack, the movie lags only slightly in the middle, while the script delivers some disarming moments of melancholy along the way. The direction-less Roy, for example, expresses his lack of fear regarding the test by saying, “These questions all have answers.”

It’s not perfect, certainly, but grading on a curve that considers the generally low aspirations of the genre, “The Perfect Score” earns a strong 650 on the verbal. As for how it’s going to do on the math, given the release date, that’s a brainteaser left for Paramount’s marketing department to solve.

The Perfect Score

Production

A Paramount Pictures release presented in association with MTV Films of a Roger Birnbaum Tollin/Robbins production. Produced by Roger Birnbaum, Jonathan Glickman, Brian Robbins, Mike Tollin. Executive producer, Donald J. Lee, Jr. Co-producer, Sharla Sumpter. Directed by Brian Robbins. Screenplay, Mark Schwahn, Marc Hyman, Jon Zack; story by Hyman, Zack.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color), Clark Mathis; editor, Ned Bastille; music, John Murphy; music supervisors, Jennifer Pyken, Madonna Wade-Reed; production designer, Jaymes Hinkle; art director, Sandra Tanaka; set decorator, Johanne Hubert; costume designer, Melissa Toth; sound (Dolby Digital, DTS), David Husby; assistant director, Michele Panelli-Venetis; casting, Amanda Mackey Johnson, Cathy Sandrich Gelfond. Reviewed at the Bruin Theatre, Los Angeles, Jan. 26, 2004. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 93 MIN.

With

Anna - Erika Christensen Kyle - Chris Evans Matty - Bryan Greenberg Francesca - Scarlett Johansson Desmond - Darius Miles Roy - Leonardo Nam Desmond's Mother - Tyra Ferrell Larry - Matthew Lillard

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