This review was updated on March 4, 2005.
In Ben Wolfinsohn’s “High School Record,” student frustrations are offered neither as slapstick fodder (a la “American Pie”) nor as cause for alarm (“Elephant”), but simply as an entry point into an easily recognizable moment of youth — a time of (relatively) more innocence and of feeling deeply uncomfortable in one’s own skin. Working from a semi-improvised script and with a cast of nonprofessional actors (most of them Los Angeles punk musicians), Wolfinsohn fashions a movie of uncommon feeling and authenticity that, despite its minuscule budget and lack of MTV-friendly faces, could generate a word of mouth cult following like Wolfinsohn’s 2002 music docu, “Friends Forever.”
The “record” of pic’s title is a documentary purportedly being made by two seniors (Susan Estrada and Nicholas Gitomer, whose quirky musical performances populate pic’s soundtrack) at a magnet high school for the performing arts. Introduced through their lens are an assortment of refreshingly un-airbrushed classmates: nerdily handsome loner Caleb (Dean Allen Spunt); his on-again, off-again girlfriend, Sabrina (Jenna Thorhill); too-cool-for-school Eddie (Bobby Sandoval); and token rich girl Erin (Jennifer Clavin). All are students in the drama class of the amusingly named Ms. Farewell (Becky Stark), a high priestess of eccentricity who dresses like a refugee from a Medieval Times restaurant.
Though there are bits of narrative sprinkled throughout “High School Record,” pic is less of a story than an accumulation of surreptitiously observed behavior and incident, from Sabrina and Erin’s lackluster effort at working in a fast-food joint to Caleb and Sabrina discovering there’s more to a relationship than sex.
And, perhaps owing to the inexperience of Wolfinsohn’s cast, “High School Record” manages to sustain its documentary illusion far longer and more effectively than most pics of this ilk. (At Sundance, apt comparisons abounded between pic and Jim McBride’s seminal “David Holzman’s Diary.”) Though amateurs, cast members are anything but amateurish, giving vivid life to a host of memorable characters who don’t easily fit into the usual high school movie stereotypes.
Shot in low-grade digital video and shown digitally at Sundance, pic’s image and sound are intentionally rough-hewn, further adding to the sense that the film is in fact a found object, a time capsule unearthed.