Toronto Film Review: ‘Public Schooled’

'Public Schooled' Review: Toronto Film Festival
Courtesy of TIFF

A home-schooled prodigy suddenly realizes he has a lot of socialization to catch up on in this likable comedy.

The kind of creepily misguided over-parenting that seems more apt for dramatic treatment (as in the book and film “Loverboy”) serves as the engine for light farce in “Public Schooled.” This second feature for director Kyle Rideout and co-scenarist Josh Epstein (following 2015’s “Eadward”) is a disarming spin on the misfit conceit of many a high-school comedy, as its protagonist goes from seven years of sheltered home schooling to the comparatively vast social horizons of a regular public institution — though his helicopter Mom won’t let go so easily.

Getting amusing mileage from a borderline-disturbed primary dynamic, and too sweet-natured to hit the usual crass teen-comedy notes despite some off-color humor, this is a pleasant diversion whose commercial prospects may be limited by somewhat televisual presentation.

Making little attempt to explain how Liam (Daniel Doheny) has managed to stay so naive and friendless despite living in a seemingly fair-sized town, the filmmakers simply introduce him as the consummately geeky, guileless — albeit surprisingly well-adjusted — product of mom Claire’s (Judy Greer) painstaking guidance. Having gotten pregnant on a debate-team field trip when she was his age now, and apparently not needing to work for a living, Claire has foresworn all other relationships in order to devote herself fully to the rearing of her only child. Unlike most home-schooling parents, she’s not serving some extreme religious or political agenda, but merely expressing a belief that public education breeds mediocrity.

In intellectual terms, at least, Liam is a roaring success: He wants to be the No. 2 astronomer in the world (deferring top spot to Stephen Hawking), and has the test scores to quite possibly realize that ambition, as well as to ensure his admittance to Cambridge next year. All he needs to do is pass a high-school equivalency exam, taken at the local “real” school. However, upon spying the beauteous, albeit one-legged, Anastasia (Siobhan Williams) — she lost the limb to cancer — he’s so smitten that he deliberately flubs the test in order to become a student at mom’s despised alma mater. Claire is not at all pleased, but reluctantly allows that Liam might need to experience more human contact than her very short leash has allowed. The Principal (Andrew McNee) lets him enroll, or at least temporarily assume an absent student’s courseload, if only because he wants further opportunities to hit on “hot mom” Claire.

The latter isn’t interested. But she is very interested in everything Liam says, does and wants. This extends to actively instructing him in “teenage rebellion” pursuits such as smoking pot, drinking and attending parties. Though that kind of invasive mother-son togetherness stretches credulity, Rideout and Epstein infuse their tale with enough genial absurdity that we can accept Liam seeing Claire as his well-intentioned if occasionally overzealous best friend — rather than as a terrifying example of pathological dependency and transference.

It helps, of course, that Greer proves a resourceful comedienne, as usual, and a colorful array of supporting characters are nicely turned. The film’s biggest single asset, however, is newcomer Doheny, who has an appealing, slightly buggy comedic flair that recalls some of Tom Hanks’ earliest appearances. Another find is Williams, a more experienced young thesp whose ingenue role is nothing special, but who is genuinely charming in it.

More antic and likable than it is laugh-out-loud funny, “Public Schooled” is handled with skill on modest means. But it might have flown a little higher with more attention to visual style and a soundtrack less cluttered with blandly forgettable pop songs.

Toronto Film Review: 'Public Schooled'

Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema), Sept. 11, 2017. Running time: 86 MIN.

Production

(Canada) A Motion 58 presentation of a Motion 58 Entertainment production. (International sales: Kaleidoscope Film Distribution, London.) Producers: Josh Epstein, Adam Folk. Executive producer: Justine Whyte.

Crew

Director: Kyle Rideout. Screenplay: Josh Epstein, Rideout. Camera (color, HD): Stirling Bancroft. Editor: Yvann Thibaudeau. Music: Matthew Rogers.

With

Judy Greer, Daniel Doheny, Siobhan Williams, Russell Peters, Grace Park, Andrew McNee, Alex Barima, Andrew Herr, Andrea Bang, Maxine Miller, Eva Day, Josh Epstein.

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