“Boarding School” is the kind of enterprise whose problems you might normally suspect as being the result of a mismatch between helmer and scenarist — except in this case both are Boaz Yakin, whose diverse prior films include “Fresh,” “A Price Above Rubies,” “Remember the Titans” and “Max.” His first directorial foray into anything approaching horror terrain is a contemporary Gothic melodrama in which (just like current release “Down a Dark Hall”) “problem” children are herded off to an isolated, creepy academy where members of the skeleton staff have a sinister agenda.
“Boarding School” includes an odd mix of narrative elements within a classically Grimm child-endangerment scenario that would work best played as a modern fairy tale. Yet Yakin chooses to pace the film more slowly as a serious drama, which keeps the suspense from building real momentum and exacerbates the script’s implausibilities. A more magical-realist treatment might have have allowed us to suspend disbelief for this watchable misfire, which opened on 11 U.S. screens Aug. 31 simultaneous with a digital release.
In 1990s New York City, 12-year-old Jacob (Luke Prael) is prone to nightmares from which he wakes up screaming — distress that only infuriates his already high-strung mother (Samantha Mathis), though his stepfather (David Aaron Baker) seems more sympathetic. At the funeral of a grandmother he’s never met (she and his mother were estranged), he’s accosted by a crazy old woman (Barbara Kingsley) who natters on about abuses she and grandma suffered as Jewish girls in a “hiding place” during the Third Reich.
Later at home, suspended from school for a fight he didn’t start, Jacob idly tries on some of the clothing that’s among items inherited from his grandmother. Being caught admiring himself in a dress is apparently the last straw for his parents. Next thing he knows, he’s packed off to a distant school for “unique young people” run by Dr. Sherman (Will Patton). Despite its imposing manorial scale, the facility has no staff beyond the Doc, his humorless Mrs. (Tammy Blanchard), and one caretaker/guard (Chris LaPanta).
Stranger still, there are only a half-dozen enrollees besides Jake, including a same-aged girl he’s already met: rich uber-brat Christine (Sterling Jerins). The others are all “freaks and retards” (at least in Christine’s crass view), consisting of Jacob’s severely burn-scarred roommate (Nadia Alexander, playing a boy under heavy makeup); a kid with Tourette’s Syndrome (Christopher Dylan White); a hulking simpleton (Nicholas J. Oliveri); and twins (Kobi & Kadin George) of apparent subcontinental-Indian heritage. The explanation as to why the latter duo are here arrives late and is a bit weak.
It soon becomes clear that discipline is really the only curriculum — the Bible being the sole book ever opened in class — and that Dr. S. has no reservations whatsoever about doling out corporal punishment for the least infraction. Their cellphones immediately confiscated, the kids realize they’re de facto prisoners even before snooping Christine discovers the grounds are rimmed by an electrified fence. Once their number dwindles by one “suicide,” the young protagonists’ desire for escape evolves from homesick preference to life-saving urgency.
Patton and Blanchard do good work as villains who aren’t at all what they initially appear to be. But the eventual explication of who they really are and what they’re doing here actually works against much of what “Boarding School” has built up.
Two major subsidiary threads turn out to be superfluous, including one in which Jacob has recurrent flashbacks to his grandmother’s ordeal in Nazi Germany. Even more inorganically pasted-on is the insistence of others that Jacob is kinda “like a girl,” suggesting some sort of gender-blur that neither writing nor performance supports. Prael, who made a memorable impression as the heroine’s horrible crush object in “Eighth Grade,” certainly earns points for being game enough to spend much of the film in vintage evening gown and feminine warpaint. But he’s simply not an actor who projects any sexual or gender-identity ambiguity, so the entire motif never transcends phony exoticism.
Though it holds attention well enough to avoid flatlining outright, “Boarding School” is too slowly paced to deliver much excitement, let alone scares, while its respectable packaging elements are too conservative to provide enough atmosphere.
Movies with a novel mix of thematic elements are generally to be applauded, but not if they fail to gel. Count this quasi-horror mystery, a meditation on long-term scars from the Nazi era as well as a portrait of child gender fluidity — told over the course of nearly two hours — as among those ambitious failures.