Rated 4.0

If it seems unfairly constricting to slap the “noir” label on writer-director Rian Johnson’s nervy feature debut, it’s also important to remember that So-Cal high-school Dashiell Hammett is precisely what Johnson’s movie tries to do. Yes, Brick is another wounded sleuth’s grim quest, which happens to be set among the shifty social currents of pimply, hormone- and drug-addled San Clemente teenagers. But Johnson has synthesized those milieus brilliantly; the movie’s ambience, most apparent in its slangy hardboiled banter, is unprecedented and invigorating. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a sullen loner who, as the noir anti-hero rite requires, descends into a brutalizing underworld (in this case, of barren parking lots and high-school alleyways), to investigate the disappearance of his ex-girlfriend. He gets quite a pounding but doesn’t come away as anybody’s fool. Johnson’s image of the broken-down outcast who speaks fluently and takes no shit taps into a weird sort of wish fulfillment—mixing self-immolation with self-aggrandizement—that noir and adolescence have always agreed on.