It’s a shame that so many neophyte directors choose the teenage rite-of-passage drama for their debut, because the movie world needs more teenage rite-of-passage dramas like it needs a hole in the head. The latest (although there perhaps have been five more since that didn’t get the exposure of a Venice Critics’ Week premiere) is Canadian cinematographer-turned-director Vincent Biron’s occasionally charming but terminally slight first feature “Prank,” which works hard and sincerely at the task of setting itself apart from the crowd, but never quite succeeds. Perhaps that straight-ahead sincerity is part of the problem — invested with very little of the puckish rebellion displayed by its miscreant central foursome, and laboring under the misapprehension that its least interesting character, with the most predictable arc, should be the nexus of our attention, “Prank” is the banana skin that no one slips on, the bucket of water that doesn’t fall from the door jamb, or, in the case of the jokers in question, the sports car hood that remains resolutely unsullied by excrement. It’s not so much a prank-gone-wrong, which suggests a level of drama never achieved here, it’s a prank that never quite lands.
Toothy, unpopular Quebecois teen Stefie (Etienne Galloy) spends his free time alone, throwing a ball against a wall or practicing the clarinet — rehearsing a piece which, if we weren’t aware of his dorkiness already, apparently requires him to repeatedly play just the one note (writer-directors, beware this detail as it gives reviewers too easy a win at your expense). But one day his life changes (not that we’ve been privy to much of it aside from the ball-throwing and one-note-playing) when two guys he’s never met before, Martin (Alexandre Lavigne) and Jean-Sé (Simon Pigeon), prevail upon him to participate in a silly but somewhat inspired skit, involving them playing the roles of a man and his dog, alternately worrying at and apologizing to the unsuspecting customers in a nearby supermarket. All Stefie has to do is film their exploits, until they’re thrown out by security, so that they can upload the video to their YouTube channel. Displaying the first glimmer of enthusiasm we’ve seen crack his usually dull, orthodontic expression, Stefie performs the task well enough to become a de facto co-conspirator, if a pointedly junior one. It seems like the lonely Stefie might finally have a tribe.
But then again, cherchez la femme. Martin’s girlfriend Léa (Constance Massicotte), all tousled blonde hair and tough-chick attitude, is very believably the type of “cool girl” that the callow, virginal Stefie would find attractive, and whether she’ll respond to Stefie’s dazzled approaches, or simply use them to make Martin jealous while relentlessly friend-zoning him, becomes the crux of the never-terribly-involving main plot. The film is much more successful in the fringes, whether it’s the narratively sidelined Jean-Sé’s endearing habit of describing the plots of Jean-Claude Van Damme movies in minute detail while committing minor acts of vandalism, the pleasing crisp, well-composed cinematography (Biron serves as his own DP), or the quick little pen portraits drawn of several of the prankees, living lives that the gang’s schemes briefly disrupt.
This last is the film’s best and most original notion. Whether it’s the couple sitting at a picnic table outside a hotdog restaurant engaged in a one-sided breakup who suddenly find the air filled with confetti, or the security guard having a deep and meaningful heart-to-heart with a colleague, while the warehouse they’re guarding is infiltrated, or the owner of the car that is targeted for defilement having just had to put down a pet, there’s a clever notion wrapped inside these small vignettes. Mostly Biron’s script (which he co-wrote with Alexandre Auger, Eric K. Boulianne, and Marc-Antoine Rioux) is concerned with the rather empty-headed and schematic interactions within the group, but the sudden shift of focus onto their targets (information to which they, of course, are not privy) opens out the perspective and brings it dangerously close to saying something meaningful about how everyone, no matter how peripheral they might seem to your life, is the star of their own story.
It’s frustrating, then that Biron shows an awareness of the plenitude of offbeat, individual stories in the world, yet chooses to focus on one that’s so familiar, covering ground already so well-traveled. Growing up is hard, and we’ve all done it, but the universality of the experience can’t distill any particular urgency or necessity into “Prank,” in which another nice, middle-class, white teenage boy, whose greatest adversary in life is social awkwardness, learns a little — a very little — about puppy love and peer pressure.