“The Prank” is no big whoop, but for a good stretch it’s a tartly written, engagingly nasty little comedy of high-school vengeance. It’s set during the senior year of Ben (Connor Kalopsis), the kind of obsessive-compulsive overachiever who prints out several backup copies of his homework assignments, and Tanner (Ramona Young), a hacker, high on energy drinks, who’s his equally brainy but less responsible best friend. These two exist in their own unpopular cloistered geek space. But then fate throws a curveball at the striving-to-be-perfect Ben.
His AP physics class is run by the most infamous teacher at West Greenview High: a veteran instructor named Mrs. Wheeler — played, in a performance of must-see deviousness and passive-aggressive glee, by Rita Moreno. Mrs. Wheeler, with great pride, presents herself as the ultimate stern taskmaster, a kind of knowingly formidable teacher-as-drill-sergeant. She’s not just explaining the intricacies of physics (which she’s actually quite good at); she’s “training young minds” to be ready for everything the world will throw at them. And so she regards her students with a twinkle of punitive rigor that’s borderline sadistic. (She also wears black gloves she never takes off, suggesting there may be weirder depths to her fanaticism than we can see.)
Moreno, in a silver bob of a wig (the character is explicitly presented as wearing one), her eyes agleam, her mouth a fixed smirk, her voice pouring forth with a kind of old-school mellifluous California clarity that’s equal parts self-satisfaction and misanthropic superiority, comes on like she’s warming up to star in “The Pauline Kael Story.” She makes Mrs. Wheeler a delectable imp of sunny contempt. We see why everyone hates her, from the students she terrifies to the principal (Keith David) whose parking spot she ritually steals. Yet we can also see that Mrs. Wheeler is a brilliant woman who practices teaching as a form of tough love. For a while, we give her the benefit of the doubt.
Until, that is, she goes a notch too far. When it comes to light that a student cheated on a test, she announces that she’s going to give all the students a failing grade unless the cheater’s identity is revealed. She’s asking them to rat the cheater out, and she’s punishing any innocent, hard-working kid who won’t go along or who simply doesn’t know.
That’s not a fair deal. What’s worse, it has the potential to mess with Ben’s scholarship plans, which is why he’s beyond distraught. So Tanner, almost basking in the injustice of it all, comes up with a plan to give Mrs. Wheeler the karmic payback she’s been courting. Several years before, a dissolute student named Wayne went missing; the presumption is that he was an addict who died in a ditch somewhere. Tanner devises a plan to blast out a theory, complete with deepfake videos and Photoshopped social-media hooks designed to go viral, that Mrs. Wheeler is the person who murdered him. The idea is to create a social-media storm that makes her writhe in agony, at least until the storm passes over.
“The Prank” was directed by Maureen Bharoocha, from a broadly witty script by Rebecca Flinn-White and Zak White, and in its borderline cartoon way it has a satirical savvy about how currents of misinformation are spread that recalls the good parts of “Don’t Look Up.” Mrs. Wheeler tries to fight off the rumors by ignoring them, as if the very idea of this scandal were beneath her. There are juicy scenes set in the office of the principal, who she treats with withering disdain — something destined to come back at her, with that wily actor Keith David relishing every line. By the time the police haul off Mrs. Wheeler in handcuffs, we think we know just where the movie is headed: into the realm of moralistic media burlesque, complete with lessons about how the Internet has an amoral life of its own, and about how taking the law into your own hands — especially if you happen to be a precocious high-school kid — is destined to blow up in your face.
We also suspect that Mrs. Wheeler will be revealed to be a very different person than we thought. And when Ben goes over to her comfy suburban castle of a home and discovers a more relaxed version of her — she’s nice! with no black gloves! — that’s just what happens. But not in the way we expected. “The Prank” starts off as a fresh, funny riff on high-school society in the age of toxic cynicism: the negotiations between Tanner and the cafeteria lady over how many chicken strips she’s going to get, the film’s understanding of “the news cycle of high school.” But then the movie takes a turn into…let’s just say, the darkness. And when it does, it leaves any true connection to the real world behind. At that point I began to tune out. And yet! By all means see “The Prank” for Rita Moreno, who proves, after years of TV work and the “West Side Story” remake, that there’s a place for her in the movies you weren’t expecting.