Winning performances by a number of fresh-faced newcomers are almost but not quite enough to recommend “The Secret Lives of Dorks,” a fitfully amusing, more often shrill and overstated teen comedy that, like its dweeby protagonist, tries too hard to impress. Cobbled together from bits of “Sixteen Candles,” “Clueless,” et al., director Salome Breziner’s familiar tale of high-school haves and have-nots isn’t without its charms, though it never attains the depth of feeling or memorable characterizations that distinguished such standout recent examples of the genre as “Superbad” and “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” Pic made a brief appearance in theaters last month, then quickly cut class, but could be rediscovered years from now as an early resume-builder for some of its cast.
Like many of its kind, “Secret Lives” revolves around the unrequited, thinly disguised crush of a four-eyed, pimply-faced social untouchable for the prettiest and most popular cheerleader in school. And in a movie that generally abhors subtlety the way teenagers abhor zits, it comes as a modest surprise that screenwriters Johnny Severin and Nicolas David Brandt afford both nerd Payton (Gaelan Connell) and pom-pom girl Carrie (Riley Voelkel) a dimension or two beyond their skin-deep appearances.
As the pic’s round-robin voiceover explains, Carrie is only too aware of Payton’s longtime crush, and so resolves to push him into the arms of Samantha (Vanessa Marano), the goth/comic-geek girl who may be even one step below Payton on the high-school caste system. At roughly the same moment, Carrie’s milk-fed jock boyfriend, Clark (Beau Mirchoff), decides he needs a crash course in the history of superheroes and turns to Payton for tutoring — clandestinely, of course, lest anyone get the wrong idea.
For a movie that loudly trumpets an empowering “be yourself” message, “Secret Lives” doesn’t seem to have any real idea what it wants to be for the first couple of reels, during which Breziner (“Tollbooth,” “Fast Sofa”) assails us with an ADD grab-bag of in-your-face stylistic devices. Multiple characters speak directly to camera, cell-phone texts transform into talking video messages, and Chicago Bears legend Mike Ditka appears as the host of a how-to parenting video consulted by Payton’s wrestling-coach dad (Jim Belushi) as he seeks to understand his “dork” son. Considerably more effective than any of that are the imaginatively drawn animated sequences that periodically transform Payton’s drab life into panels from an autobiographical comic book.
Tonally, the movie runs the usual teen-movie gamut from outre gross-out gags (including one act of serial flatulence and two of projectile vomiting) to a more sensitive mining of fragile adolescent emotions. But Breziner hasn’t quite figured out how to shift smoothly between those disparate comic modes. Though the director is far from a first-timer, one can’t shake the sense that this movie should bear the celluloid equivalent of a “student driver” placard. And aside from the cell phones and a few other modern background details, “Secret Lives” seems to be taking place in some weird cultural vacuum where “geek chic” has not yet entered the lexicon, comicbooks remain underground and “The Big Bang Theory” hasn’t yet hit the airwaves.
The actors, however, consistently transcend the material, and on those infrequent occasions when the movie settles down a bit, a genuine sweetness shines through. Marano (star of the ABC Family series “Switched at Birth”) proves especially adept at taking a familiar ugly-duckling character and giving her a savvy edge that says she’s not as desperate as she looks and willing to put up with only so much adolescent male indecision (even if it’s coming from a fellow traveler like Payton). You leave the theater wanting to see more of these performers, just not in this movie.