A bright but awkward college student learns to confront his fears and do the right thing in “The Education of Charlie Banks,” a solid American indie that falls just short of earning top marks. New York-set, seriocomic coming-of-ager marks the feature-film helming bow of Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst, whose notoriety, plus strong performances by rising names Jesse Eisenberg (“The Squid and the Whale”) and Eva Amurri (“Saved!”), should make this a popular fest item before graduating to niche theatrical and/or ancillary.
Film unfolds from the p.o.v. of the eponymous character. Prologue, set in early ’70s, establishes the key bourgeois-vs.-blue-collar theme as 10-year-old Charlie and best friend Danny peer through the window of the school bus at strutting playground bully Mick. Vicious Mick is Charlie’s personal bogeyman; but Danny admires the merciless young thug.
Fast-forward some six years and Charlie (now played by Eisenberg) witnesses Mick (Jason Ritter) savagely beating two suburban teens at a party. After secretly reporting the crime to police, who slap Mick behind bars, Charlie later decides to renege on his testimony, greatly disappointing his father. Parental admonishment, “You can have a head full of the right ideas, but if you can’t make the right moves in the world, they’re useless,” epitomizes the pic’s ultimate moral lesson.
Three years later, Charlie and Danny (Christopher Marquette) are roommates at an Ivy League-like upstate college (repped by Rhode Island’s Brown U.). Study time dwindles when they start socializing with spoiled, ultra-rich Leo (Sebastian Stan), Greek heiress Nia (Gloria Votsis) and aristocratic senator’s daughter Mary (Amurri), for whom Charlie has the hots, even though he knows she’s way out of his league.
The unexpected appearance of Mick, claiming to be in town on a short visit, distresses Charlie, who fears the sociopath wants revenge. Mick’s behavior, friendly one moment, threatening the next, ratchets up the tension as he insinuates himself into their lives. To Charlie’s dismay, Leo and Mary also befriend Mick.
Rocker Durst, whose previous helming experience was in musicvids, proves surprisingly adept at character-driven storytelling. Period clothing, art direction and expertly chosen music tracks evoke the era and ambience, while unobtrusive, nuanced camerawork by versatile d.p. Alex Nepomniaschy shows characters and locations to best advantage. (At screening caught, the 35mm-lensed film showed in an HD projection.)
However, the movie falls short in the casting of the pivotal role of Mick. Sitcom star Ritter simply lacks sufficient menace and charisma to do the difficult part justice, and his perf seems weak compared with the concentrated playing by Eisenberg and Amurri.