Final grade: C
An often funny but mostly average indie flick
Even graded on a curve, General Education almost gets a failing mark. Tonally, the movie (which was filmed in Chico and Gridley) is all over the map, veering from quirky indie comedy (along the lines of Napoleon Dynamite) to pathos (ringer Janeane Garofalo’s take as a neglected alcoholic mother seems to have wandered in from the Lifetime Channel), as well as jumping into mud puddles of casual bigotry.
It doesn’t help that our anti-hero (Chris Sheffield) is a privileged douchebag whose father, the mayor (Larry Miller), is obsessively driving him to blow off general ed in order to score a tennis scholarship at the old man’s alma mater. How that’s supposed to work is never clear—well, besides being a setup for him to spend 10 days in summer school to provide a tenuous narrative through-line.
It also doesn’t help that the kid doesn’t seem to have any alternate goals to strive for within the context of the movie. He’s an abrasive cipher with a 12-year-old black sidekick, a new girlfriend with a very predicable secret, and a loose collection of aggressively quirky friends. That’s pretty much all we have. And for a movie shot in Chico, there’s so little of the town on display that it’s curious why director Tom Morris even bothered to drive his equipment up here.
But there’s a droll, at times subversive streak at work that balances the decidedly un-PC touches with more than its share of genuinely funny moments. What helps are sporadic surreal touches that play like a Wes Anderson version of Better Off Dead, and some very nice character work by the supporting cast. Garafalo in particular treats her clich"d character with a dignity that’s still quietly amusing, and a relentlessly chirpy turn by Mercedes Masöhn as a wheelchair-bound career adviser pretty much bumps this up a grade by itself.
General Education is not a particularly good film, but it is consistently amusing in its own modest way.