Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: The teen superhero movie New Mutants, from Fault In Our Stars director Josh Boone, has been postponed again. In its absence, we’re looking at YA adaptations.
Robert Cormier’s 1974 novel, The Chocolate War, depicts high school as a hellish landscape of brutally enforced conformity and aspirational sadism—in other words, it’s an accurate portrait. Fourteen years after its publication, Keith Gordon, who’d grown weary of playing hapless teens in movies like Christine (1983) and Back To School (1986), made his directorial debut with what’s mostly a very faithful adaptation, though he apparently felt obligated to soften the book’s bleak ending a touch. Despite that unfortunate lapse, adolescents both current and former will definitely feel seen; while the students may be exclusively male (the movie is set at a fictional Catholic boys’ school), the emotional ugliness—as Mean Girls would later demonstrate—is universal. Think of this one as Mean Boys, minus most of the jokes.
At Trinity High, the bullying has been highly organized. An ostensibly secret society called the Vigils more or less runs the school, holding shadowy meetings to which non-members are summoned to be given compulsory assignments. Some of these involve simple self-humiliation, like a hazing ritual; others target faculty and staff. Incoming freshman Jerry Renault (Ilan Mitchell-Smith, best known as the kid opposite Anthony Michael Hall in Weird Science) gets assigned a particularly odious task, in Trinity’s rah-rah context: He must refuse, for 10 days, to take part in the school’s annual Girl Scout-ish fundraiser, during which everyone frantically tries to sell overpriced boxes of chocolates. Anything but a rebel, Jerry does what he’s told. But then he keeps refusing to sell into day 11 and beyond, defying both the school and the Vigils simultaneously—a Bartleby-esque gesture that has an anarchic domino effect on the student body.
Most young adult novels feature a clearly defined hero, or at least an identification figure for the reader. Renault occupies that role in The Chocolate War, but what’s fascinating about Gordon’s film adaptation is how little we learn about him, apart from some quickly sketched backstory: His mother recently died of cancer, a loss that’s turned his father into a passive lump of repressed anguish. That’s it, really. Jerry can’t, and never does, articulate his reason for being civilly disobedient, and the character largely disappears from the movie for lengthy stretches, showing up just to say “no” again at the fundraiser’s daily roll call. (Participation is voluntary, but you have to decline in public over and over and over—puberty in a nutshell.) Instead, Gordon focuses on Trinity as a diseased system, giving equal attention to Archie (Wallace Langham of CSI, then billed as Wally Ward), the Vigils’ effetely Machiavellian “assigner” (but not, significantly, its leader; Adam Baldwin plays that part), and to Brother Leon (John Glover, having an absolute blast), the teacher and substitute headmaster in charge of the chocolate sale.
For a first-time filmmaker, Gordon (who now works mostly in TV, having directed episodes of Better Call Saul, Legion, Fargo, etc.) demonstrates an impressive, intuitive understanding of cinematic rhythms, perhaps from having paid attention on the sets of masters like Brian De Palma and John Carpenter. He lets certain crucial scenes play out at deliberately excruciating length—Brother Leon is introduced accusing a star pupil of cheating, piling on the verbal and even physical torment, then suddenly embracing the poor kid and declaring the rest of the class to be incipient Nazis for enjoying the abuse—while condensing or even omitting others altogether. (We never see Jerry get his initial assignment.) Montages are accompanied by well-chosen, evocative needle drops; even when Gordon uses Peter Gabriel’s “We Do What We’re Told (Milgram’s 37)” in an on-the-nose way, he takes care to bury its lyrics underneath actors’ dialogue. Only the ending truly disappoints, departing radically from Cormier’s novel. In the book, as in life, nothing changes.