For a low-budget, rookie movie, The Undeserved has nearly flawless execution. And yet still, somehow, The Undeserved manages to feel like it doesn’t quite succeed.
What Is Real?
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The movie just misses several opportunities to become embarrassingly bad. Start with the narrator (who is not the central character), who wears his hair in a mohawk, wears gold-rimmed aviator glasses, and speaks in a bored, “too cool 4 u” voice. If Paul Sado were any worse in the role, you wouldn’t believe him, and since he’s the narrator, that would kill the movie.
But he’s from a small Vermont town — which director Brad Coley portrays very well — and he’s a teenager. He’s rebellious, but still blind to the fact that he’s conforming to a rebellious image. So although he looks like a stereotype, it could spring from the character’s own naivete and small-town upbringing. This may turn out to be a tortuous excuse for sloppy character development. But in The Undeserved, this sort of complexity doesn’t seem to come by accident. It’s too frequent to just be beginner’s luck.
The adults in the movie — mostly teachers — are all too believable. The kids call them “crunchy granola” (and about 6 other adverbs and adjectives I wasn’t fast enough to write down) hippies. And the kids are right. The teachers are hippies. But they are not some conservative’s stereotype of what hippies are. They actually are recognizable, liberal-minded people, the kind who would be drawn to an alternative high school in Vermont. They have some ugly faults, but these too seem frustratingly real.
Small-Screen Big Drama
The heart of the story is a budding relationship between Charlie, the whip-smart biology student and son of the Italian teacher, and Joy, who lives with her aunt and uncle on the wrong side of the tracks.
The small town foments soap-opera drama. Even before the big conflict is introduced, all the little conflicts feel like tempests in teapots. Maybe they’re even believable, but it’s not a texture you can really like. All the small-town gossip makes you feel dirty, and the larger themes make the movie feel like a preachy after-school special. Strangely, the movie isn’t actually preachy. Is the director a master of balance, or a failure at making his point? It’s probably the former, but we can’t be entirely sure.
Looking for a key bad performance or hokey situation, I can’t pinpoint a single case and say: “There, that’s where the movie falls apart.” For what it is, the movie is generally successful.
But the heavy drama in such a modest film just doesn’t work. One could almost call it “flawless,” but it’s still not an easy movie to recommend. It’s a good calling card for all involved. It’s just not particularly well suited for an audience.