Teen movies have long been resigned to life as tales of growing pains, parties, proms and rites of passage. From ‘The Breakfast Club’ to the ‘American Pie’ films, the genre has tended to blithely explore the trials and tribulations of adolescents. Rian Johnson’s ‘Brick’, however, is more Raymond Chandler than Ferris Bueller, and by splicing the hard-boiled dialogue and gritty underbelly of 1940’s film noir with a High-School setting, first-time director Johnson has created a piece of astoundingly unique and striking film.
Wry, astute Brendan (a brilliantly charismatic Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is our young Humphrey Bogart, our post-adolescent Sam Spade; a tough-talking teenage sleuth delving into the drug-addled socialite “Upper Crust” of his nameless Californian high school, tracking the culprits responsible for the suspicious death of his estranged girlfriend Emily (Emilie De Ravin). Brendan’s Bogart-alike unsurprisingly isn’t the only genre standard on display – the film is rife with a scattered bunch of miscreants and scoundrels straight from a Dashiell Hammett novel. Film Noir’s usual array of boorish, thuggish enforcers, alluring femme fatales, socialite chanteuses, enigmatic crime bosses and double-dealing conspirators all manipulate and complicate Brendan’s investigation with their own distinctly adult agendas. The precocious youths of this tense mystery are no typical teen-movie fodder. Not that there aren’t elements of teen-movie cliché; still present are the classic cliques and well-worn stereotypes, the jock, the nerd, the stoner and the rich kids are all included, albeit somewhat darker and more manic in nature. But what makes these particular clichés exciting is the unique script that transforms them into something beyond the norm.
The teenagers of Brendan’s anonymous school speak in a sharp 1940’s slang that coolly sets ‘Brick’ apart from the crowd. There are multiple references, for example, to “Bulls” (Police), “Hop” (Drugs) and “Shamus” (Detective). Throughout the entirety of Brendan’s investigation, these vintage terms fly between characters at a pace that emulates the quick-fire dialogue of Bogart and Bacall in ‘The Big Sleep’. To a degree this machine-gun pace slang feels somewhat gimmicky – perhaps the less attentive viewer will find themselves lost in the intricate web of coded symbols, jargon and plot twists, those enthralled will be rewarded with an intriguing plot, expertly fleshed out by a convincing and fresh-faced cast.
Teenagers playing adults of a bygone era may sound worryingly akin to a modern update of Alan Parker’s faintly sinister child-gangster flick ‘Bugsy Malone’, but Rian Johnson has avoided the film becoming mere parody, instead crafting an atmosphere of vast emptiness; awash with cold blue and white lighting and sparse in extras. A haunting, echoing score composed by Rian Johnson’s cousin Nathan Johnson reverberates sparsely throughout each scene. The cinematography too, is stunning and like the soundtrack, is comprised of a combination of style not only reverent to the original Film Noir but with flashes of modern ingenuity and genuinely impressive makeshift effects for such a low-budget independent feature.