A movie needs no ambition beyond the modest desire to occupy a viewer’s time. But in our spilling-over-with-content world, there are still movies that can make you wonder: Why does this film even exist? Take “November Criminals.” It’s a grade-Z teen homicide thriller that, judged solely by its IMDb page, has what you might almost call a pedigree.
The movie’s stars, Ansel Elgort and Chloë Grace Moretz, bring their puppyish glitter-kid sparkle to the role of high-school seniors who are boyfriend and girlfriend (but not really) in suburban Washington, D.C. The film also features David Strathairn and Catherine Keener as their respective single parents, and it was directed by Sacha Gervasi, the British crossover documentary maverick who made “Anvil: The Story of Anvil” (2009) and the factually fraudulent but still enjoyable making-of-“Psycho” docudrama “Hitchcock” (2012). It all sounds respectable enough, but “November Criminals,” which opened on VOD ahead of its nominal theatrical release next week, has the spirit of what used to be called a straight-to-tape thriller. The most pressing dramatic issue it raises is why you’re bothering to watch it.
Not that it’s awful, exactly. It’s a low-budget generic shrug of a movie, one that recycles clichés both ancient (testy drug dealers) and slightly less ancient (the hero films his life with a camcorder). Ansel Elgort acquired cred with “Baby Driver,” but he can still leave you feeling like you’re seeing the second coming of Ashton Kutcher; he’s ingenuously baby-faced in a blank and slightly unctuous way. Elgort and Moretz play Addison and Phoebe, who transition into being more than friends when she asks him if they can lose their virginity together, all as a strictly practical warm-up for college. The two go through the motions of lovemaking as if it were a science experiment, but the joke is that — shucks! — they’re attracted to each other. They just won’t admit it.
All of this sounds like the plot of a bigger-budgeted teen potboiler entitled something like “First Time’s the Charm” — but, in fact, it’s got nothing to do with anything. “November Criminals” gets rolling when the two wander into a boutique coffee shop, where Addison’s buddy Kevin (Jared Kemp) works as a barista (they’re literary hipsters who exchange talk about “The Aeneid” and James Baldwin), and minutes later a dude drives up on a motorcycle and enters the shop, where he kills Kevin at point-blank range.
Kevin looked wholesome as could be, but it takes the police about three minutes to decide that it’s a gang murder. Addison, still reeling from the sudden death of his mother by aneurysm, is the only one who’s certain that it must be otherwise. He tries to talk to the cops, and to raise the issue at a “healing” school assembly, but no one wants to listen. It’s as if the world is in on a conspiracy, and a racist one, since the presumption of gang violence is based on the fact that Kevin was black. But that’s really just the sound of a middling movie stacking the deck.
“November Criminals” is almost a fragment — less a B-movie than a B-anecdote. Elgort glums himself out (but still seems overly self-satisfied), until Addison pays a visit to Kevin’s parents, who reveal a key clue in his death: a satchel stuffed with illegal pills. Addison investigates, like a Hardy Boy out of his depth. He uncovers what happened but winds up shot and in the hospital, which is supposed to provide the film with some sort of tidy moral closure. The message: Even the truth can mask a lie. Every so often, Moretz shows up to beam at Elgort and simultaneously give him a hard time; Strathairn and Keener, as the clueless concerned parents, look weary with the pretense of stretching paycheck roles into something more. Like the rest of “November Criminals,” they seem to be asking a question — What are we doing here? — that the movie never gets around to answering.