By repeatedly upending expectations and shifting tones, writer-director Clay Liford keeps his audience keenly fascinated and anxious throughout “Wuss,” an impressively crafted drama laced with darkly comic humor. After several stops along the fest circuit — including a showcase at Los Angeles’ AFI Film Festival, where it won an audience award — this offbeat indie, about a mousy high school teacher who’s brutalized by delinquent students and mocked by most adults in his orbit, is ready to graduate to limited theatrical release. But it will need a savvy distrib capable of shouldering a tricky marketing challenge.
Right from the get-go, Liford depicts Mitch Parker (Nate Rudin), a short, slight fellow in his mid-20s, as someone who likely endured a nonstop barrage of bullying during his adolescent years. Unfortunately, as the opening sequence at his high-school reunion briskly establishes, things haven’t changed much for Mitch years after graduation: He’s still at the same school, living at home with his less-than-affectionate mother (Sylvia Luedtke) and more-than-threatening sister (Jennifer Sipes), and being tormented by students and staffers alike, even though he’s now an English teacher.
Mitch is so psychologically beaten-down that it comes as little surprise that he doesn’t rush to contact authorities when he’s assaulted by a student who doesn’t respond well to discipline. Jamal (Ryan Anderson) is such an irredeemable brute, even his own mother (Ashley Oliver, in an attention-grabbing single-scene performance) thinks Mitch should drop a dime on him after he attacks the hapless teacher. But it isn’t until he gets some encouragement from Maddie (Alicia Anthony), one of his best students, that Mitch begins to plot revenge.
“Wuss” is very amusing in its broadly comical scenes, particularly when Mitch joins long-time friends (including some fellow teachers) for spirited Dungeons & Dragons games. Indie stalwart Alex Karpovsky (“Beeswax,” “Tiny Furniture”) gets some laughs as an aggressively condescending vice principal who delights in harassing Mitch. And while Johnny Mars is more than adequately menacing as Maddie’s older brother, who just happens to be a gun-runner, he’s unexpectedly hilarious when he reveals his avocation as a rare-books dealer.
Beneath the funny business, however, a fair amount of serious suspense percolates throughout “Wuss.” As Mitch, Rudin affectingly plays a put-upon character whose humiliation and desperation helps keep the pic compelling. And newcomer Anthony beguilingly illuminates various aspects of a complex, even contradictory character — sometimes tearfully vulnerable, sometimes brazenly poised. The relationship between Mitch and Maddie turns out to be the heart and soul of “Wuss,” triggering an ambiguous yet satisfying finale.
Filmed in and around Garland, a midsize Texas city near Dallas, “Wuss” boasts fine production values, though it’s likely some pop tunes on the soundtrack may be replaced before the pic’s theatrical release.