Over 90 minutes pass before any character utters anything remotely sensible in “Status Update,” as the protagonist’s no-nonsense mother counsels him to stop worrying about social media: “It’s everybody’s highlight reel of what they want you to see: bulls—t with a filter on it to make it look pretty.” Those words might ring truer in a less antiseptic and artificial context than Scott Speer’s tapioca-bland high school comedy, in which the notionally modern high concept of a magic cellphone app — one that instantly makes our hero’s every status update come true — merely facilitates an age-old “careful what you wish for” fable, in which familiar lessons about staying true to yourself and your friends are learned. Landing in U.S. theaters just a week after Speer’s similarly teen-targeted “Midnight Sun,” this plastic, “Glee”-inflected throwaway will thereafter make a swift transfer to VOD — if ever a film demanded to be viewed on a phone, it’s this one.
Screenwriter Jason Filardi’s last big-screen credit, the 2009 Zac Efron vehicle “17 Again,” was a comparable adolescent fantasy — and give or take the odd reference to Snapchat culture, his script for “Status Update” feels like it’s been in a drawer since around that time. Nothing in the way the film’s teenagers speak, style themselves or socialize feels particularly of the moment, even relative to such other clean-cut, post-millennial mall movies as “Love, Simon.” Even its nods to technology feel just off: Facebook, the social network referenced in the film’s title and key plot device, belongs principally to the generation preceding this one. Do kids even post status updates any more?
If they don’t, to be fair, 17-year-old Kyle (Ross Lynch, in what can only be described as a drastic change of pace from the title role in “My Friend Dahmer”) is given a pretty good reason to revive the trend. A shaggy-haired Californian surfer dude thrown out of his element when his mother (Wendi McLendon-Covey) splits from his feckless dad (Rob Riggle) and moves the family to New England, he initially struggles to find a place in the new, snooty social order. Falling foul of the jocks led by preening hockey captain Derek (Gregg Sulkin) and befriending only awkward social outcast Lonnie (Harvey Guillen), he finds his fortunes rapidly improve after an encounter with an eccentric cellphone salesman (Josh Ostrovsky), who signs him into the uncanny online world of U-Niverse, a mysterious app that effectively turns his phone into a 21st-century Aladdin’s lamp.
In a matter of weeks, the new kid grows into the school’s most popular all-rounder, becoming an overnight hockey ace to threaten Derek’s dominance, and gaining Bruno Mars-style performance chops to woo earnest glee-club songbird Dani (Olivia Holt). Even his family troubles prove no match for the app, though needless to say, Kyle’s newfound, less than hard-earned status comes with some technical glitches — none of which lend this Wonder Bread affair even a glancing connection with human reality, as one fractured relationship or internal crisis after another is fixed in a chirpy snap. (A subplot involving one secondary character’s hastily resolved sexuality feels especially glib for its times.) “Status Update” is formally one cut above Disney Channel programming (the training ground, not incidentally, for multiple players here), but it lives very much in that milieu: a world where a boy as handsomely blond, athletic and self-possessed as Kyle actually gets to start proceedings as the underdog.
Inasmuch as one can complain about a film having plot holes when it hinges entirely on a magic cellphone app, much of “Status Update” feels cursory and unconsidered by its hokey standards: Even allowing for some hormonal disarray, Kyle’s motivations make perilously little sense from one scene to the next, and it’s all Lynch can do to grin winningly through it. Amid the sparkly young ensemble, all given types rather than characters to play, only promising Australian up-and-comer Courtney Eaton (“Mad Max: Fury Road”), brings a lip-licking glimmer of wit to proceedings as the school’s mean girl-in-chief; the grownups, from John Michael Higgins as a sad-sack choirmaster to Famke Janssen as a sexually predatory mom, must make do with demeaning scraps.
Technically, the film is a cheap, clean, characterless affair, its heavily lit, wipe-down aesthetic sparking to life only in a couple of peppy musical numbers, which may all too briefly remind “Step Up” acolytes that Speer directed that franchise’s liveliest, most visually inventive entry, “Step Up: Revolution,” in 2012. (The same year, by the way, that Kyle’s favored jam, the Mars smash “Locked Out of Heaven,” hit the charts.) These segues into song and dance are so plainly modeled on the glory days of Ryan Murphy’s “Glee,” however, that they only wind up making “Status Update” feel another half-decade or so behind the beat — not too long, in the grand scheme of things, but a near-lifetime in app years.