Breaking Character starts like the best of the best of teen films: with the popular and not-so-popular squaring off. Who’s right and who’s wrong is clear. The drama is undeserved, but oh so fun. Here, it’s Queen Bee and Girl Next door brawling at lunch as they vie for the affection of a dreamy new kid, Love Interest (entering to the sensual Marvin Gaye).
Yep. Those are their names. This is, after all, a play about the stereotypes forced upon teens by adults. It starts all delicious like, seemingly a parody of the very movies (Easy A, American Pie, The Breakfast Club, Mean Girls, Sixteen Candles, etc…) it both emulates and shames, but ends as if it’s an after school special on the virtuous upcoming generation.
“We are the class of 2016, and we are breaking character,” the cast says in synch, standing on desks and staring the audience down. It’s a far cry from that first bitch slap.
All archetypes are present: Nerd (Joe Walker), Girl Next Door (Jessica Dallessandro), Love Interest (Michael Williamson), Quirky Best Friend (Margot Vanyan), Cynical Best Friend (Madison Carter), Cheerleader (Missy Hamblet), Jock (Eli Pendry), Queen Bee (Liza Vanyan), Entourage 1 (Sarah Kraft), Entourage 2 (Xinyl He), Stoner (Casey Baum), Band Kid (Max Torti), Outcast (Noah Fraize), That One Black Kid (Mackenzie Williams), and Pointless Background Character (Ava Sharifi).
They are shepherded by the English teacher Mr. Mentor (Mack Leamon) and Mrs. Authority (Gale Nemec). The latter being a Nurse Ratched-like Principal with a Big Brother complex who believes kids should be kept in their place. It makes schooling easier since individualism threatens learning.
As the motley crew mills about in detention (for encouraging the violent aforementioned catfight) they find in an old library book Mrs. Authority thought she’d obliterated long ago, the idea of character development. That some people are round (the Leads) and others are flat (the stock characters deemed plot devices). Flabbergasted, nearly each kid realizes they are flat. Everyone wants to be a four dimensional Lead, not a plot device advancing someone else’s story, dream, or motive.
The youthful production may be bursting with promise, but Breaking Character doesn’t quite deliver.
The script is over-packed with characters—giving none full development—and it grapples with too many tired teen issues. Conformity, civil disobedience, self-discovery, parental discord, mental illness, sex, etc….which spins a central conflict into twenty storylines, some of which never reach resolution.
Written and directed by Hannah Harmison
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It’s scene after scene of classroom or lunchroom discussions wherein, very often, Girl Next Door proves she’s wise beyond her years and someone else achieves a personal growth milestone. It attempts to progress a naïve yet strangely beautiful idea that being yourself is, in a way, an act of defiance that encourages a better world—one without racism, sexism, classism, bully-ism (ok, I made that last one up).
The best teen movies are sharp, smart, observant, or delightful in their absurdity—acutely aware they are playing into, and therefore playing with, stereotypes. Breaking loses this in trying to take itself too seriously.
Yet there are some clever/snarky well-timed one-liners, and the soundtrack spans an impressive couple of decades, encompassing the most trendy, poppy emo-punk— Green Day’s “American Idiot”, Good Charlotte’s “Anthem”, Marina and the Diamonds’ “Oh No!,” and Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation.”
I’m not gonna lie. I totally wrote this while listening to The Get-up Kids, Thursday, The Riddlin’ Kids, Saves the Day, and Sprung Monkey. I had a hankering for the days when life did seem as easy as a song that perfectly emotes the internal plea of youth to be seen. And heard. And deemed a stellar piece of making the next society. Better. In that way, Breaking Character succeeds—creating a type of nostalgia for the optimism it’s built on.
It also features a talented cast that with a little age and some wear and tear could become genuinely great performers. Eli Pendry (Jock) is sweet and funny even while playing the bully, and Jessica Dallessandro’s Girl Next Door is spot-on. Pointless Background Character (Ava Sharifi) is strangely reminiscent of Sara Rue’s sheep girl (did she have a name?) from Can’t Hardly Wait.
Rue, like so many (Jason Segel, James Franco, Drew Barrymore, Joseph Gordon Levitt, etc…) from teen film franchises, has gone on to do great things, like I suspect many of these kids will. There isn’t a weak a link among them, but none got the time to unfold a full, nuanced, amazing story.
Breaking Character isn’t as ground breaking as its title suggest, but it does deliver a few good laughs and will remind you of what it means to still be young enough to be certain you can change the world.