Canadian teen sports spoof — like many films at the Hamptons fest this year — sounds infinitely worse than it plays. Indeed, between pic’s premise (the sport in question is chess) and its prelude (a video docu on the titular school with a Brit twit voiceover), “Hatley High” had nowhere to go but up. But character driven comedy quickly builds credibility and affection for its affably oddball townsfolk. Already out on DVD in Canada and theatrically sold in Russia (where pic’s lack of chess smarts apparently tickles auds), “Hatley” could find loyal following on cable and home vid.
New kid on the block Tommy (Nicholas Wright) discovers his recently deceased mother was a legendary chess wiz and local heroine in the chess-obsessed town. Initially courted for his presumed genius at the board, Tommy is soon accepted on his own merits. He effortlessly attracts the school’s brainy, beautiful head cheerleader Hyacinthe (Rachelle Lefevre), whose rousing pompom-waving chess cheers run along the lines of “take a look we got your rook.”
Tommy’s romance with Hyacinthe evolves charmingly, proceeding amid head-butting male confrontations with chess team captain Shaun (James A. Woods). One measure of pic’s strangeness (or perhaps only its Canadian-ness) is Tommy’s heroic gesture, once he has been goaded into a game by his g.f., to deliberately lose the match, a move soon recognized by his opponent as an overt act of contempt.
In Hatley, everybody seems quick on the draw, including hero’s father (Robert Jadah), a celebrated physics genius. The local minister (Malcolm Travis), boasts a direct line to God (incoming messages signaled by headaches and nosebleeds). Uniformly excellent ensemble cast imbues eccentric townsfolk with dignity and warmth. While bright-eyed and enthusiastic, characters come equipped with a built-in absurdist distance that prevents them from ever taking life too seriously.
Pic’s sports parody mainly impresses by its very lameness. Guys running back and forth between chessboards maneuvering pawns and bishops hardly constitutes a side-splitting lampoon of intensive pre-game training (particularly as framed by sophomore helmer Phil Price, whose forte is character study rather than formal satire). Indeed, a healthy lack of investment in the mechanics of the plot (and the game) is Price’s ace in the hole.
Art direction and costume design create a unique, vaguely academic look that is not time — or place — specific.