There’s little doubt The Education of Charlie Banks was made with immense affection, attention to detail, and a deliberate attempt – quite successfully, in fact – to mirror the slow-burn dramas of the seventies where actors are allowed to think and react without rapid edits.
Fred Durst’s direction is assured in the way he handles his excellent cast of relative feature film newcomers, and Peter Elkoff’s script often steers away from predictable moments that could’ve turned this self-proclaimed ‘coming of age’ tale into a teen frat comedy, a bathos-drenched melodrama (which is what Less Than Zero has aged and molded into), or a pseudo-crime drama set in the hallowed walls of an old and green university.
The storyline is definitely engaging, and to a minor extent it’s a riff on The Great Gatsby: where Fitzgerald story had a commoner befriending an enigmatic wealthy dream boy and almost losing himself in the filthy rich world of upscale flappers, Elkoff’s story splinters a few archetypes and has a commoner named Mick (Jason Ritter) with a criminal past learning common aspects of being human before he too finds himself out of place and snapping under the pressure of keeping his bad behaviour under lock and key.
Elkoff actually based his seventies-set drama on a real local hood whom he knew of, and the encounter that ensured after a night’s violence. Charlie Banks is about redemption, hope, and growing up when some nasty stressors force a person to make right, wrong, or instinctual decisions, and the scenes slowly but surely progress towards the inevitable confrontation when local bully Mick has to make titular Charlie Banks Jesse Eisenberg) answer for ratting him out to police a few years before.
Whereas some of the secondary characters remain archetypes – love icon Mary (Eva Amurri) never reveals any vulnerabilities, and isn’t wholly sympathetic in the way she toys with Charlie – the complexities of Mick are pretty tactile; Ritter ably uses small nuances to infer the problem solving Mick does as he realizes perhaps he can turn his own life around and blend into an upscale world when his initial goal was the evasion of the police, and seeking revenge on a rat.
Where the film’s flaw lies is in the titular character who simply isn’t that interesting, that deep, nor morally conflicted to engage audience sympathies or interest. Eisenberg is physically ideal, but he’s reactions can’t compensate for the minimal dialogue he’s been given, nor the sometimes facile blocking that has the character sitting to the screen side all pouty and sulky, while Mick cuddles and strokes Mary – the girl Charlie aches for but cannot claim in light of Mick’s sleek physical lines and charming persona.
One does warm up to Charlie Banks after a second viewing, but it’s still a distant drama that aspires to deliver dramatic power through subtlety, but it fails to hit all the necessary marks.
Anchor Bay’s DVD includes a clean transfer of this beautifully photographed (2.40:1) and decorated film, and the sound mix shows off the well-chosen period songs larded into John Sihart’s mostly successful score. (Some of the score cues intrude on a few early scenes when silence would’ve been a more powerful sound decision.)
The commentary track with director Durst and co-star Ritter is amiable but generally dull, because the two mostly describe the ‘realness’ of the experience; there’s virtually no discussion about the script, the production’s history, nor how Durst, founder of Limp Bizkit, came to director a feature film. The DVD’s making-of featurette offers more info – including interview bits with Eisenberg, Amurri, and writer Elkoff – but in terms of some meaty production info, it’s severely lacking.
A flawed but intriguing intimate drama likely to improve a bit with age.
© 2009 Mark R. Hasan