Ever since the stoner comedy first ambled groggily onto the scene with Cheech & Chong's Up in Smoke in 1978, comedies about marijuana and the people who smoke it have struggled with a very real paradox -- how do you make a movie that's not stupid, even though it's about people who are acting stupidly? More than three decades later, that's a code few filmmakers have been able to crack, and director John Stalberg Jr. doesn't offer any major breakthroughs in this area with his first feature, HIGH School. But the movie does manage to deliver something a wee bit smarter and more inventive than most of its bong-addled brethren, and considering its premise holds little promise, the fact that the results are amiably entertaining on a non-thinking level means it's better than most folks might expect.
In HIGH School, Matt Bush stars as Henry Burke, a bright and ambitious high-school senior who is at the top of his class and is poised to win an academic scholarship from M.I.T. As smart as Henry is, his life is a largely joyless grind -- his father abandoned the family years ago, his mother is an alcoholic, and Henry has to keep the household together while pinning all of his hopes on his chances of making good in college. While swerving to avoid hitting another car on the way to school, Henry accidentally has a fender bender with Dr. Gordon (Michael Chiklis), the school's severe and humorless principal, and he ends up with detention and a bill for Gordon's insurance deductible. When Henry confronts the driver of the car that caused the accident, he realizes it belongs to Travis Breaux (Sean Marquette), who was his childhood best friend before they took different paths and Travis became a hapless burnout. (Travis's last name is pronounced "bro," and this movie isn't afraid to play the funny-name card -- one Asian character's surname is pronounced just like the f-word.) Henry and Travis pay a visit to the tree house they built as kids, and Travis persuades Henry to try some of the high-powered weed he's brought with him. Marijuana just makes edgy Henry all the more paranoid, and things get worse when Dr. Gordon appears on live television to announce he'll be conducting mandatory drug tests on the entire student body the next day, with anyone who tests positive facing immediate expulsion.
Employing the logic of the blunted, Travis comes up with a plan to replace the goodies at the school's annual bake sale, which is set to take place the next morning, with brownies laced with marijuana. In need of the active ingredient, Henry and Travis steal a large supply of a potent cannabis derivative from Psycho Ed (Adrien Brody), a genius law student-turned-indoor pot farmer and dealer. Travis ends up putting too much dope in the brownies, and instead of giving the students a mild buzz, he and Henry end up putting the whole school into a stupor. And their problems get even hairier when Psycho Ed finds out who stole his stash.
One thing that sets HIGH School apart from the typical stoner comedy is that many of the characters don't seem to be having such a great time while they're high -- for every person who's overcome with the giggles and good wishes for their fellow man, there's someone else who is paranoid, puzzled, stuck in a mental loop, or in lamentably poor command of their motor functions, leading to embarrassment or injury. While the movie clearly leans to a pro-reefer stance, the screenplay by Stalberg Jr. and his co-writers Erik Linthorst and Stephen Susco mines much of its humor (and a great deal of drama) from the problems that come with having several hundred people stoned to the bejesus stuck in the same place, and as a result, this movie feels a good bit sharper and more distinctive than most of its peers.
Stalberg Jr. also lets his characters get edgy, especially Psycho Ed. In Adrien Brody's hands, the character manages to be quite funny and more than a little scary, as his paranoia and sudden malevolent impulses struggle to make their way through synapses clogged with resin. Exactly how Brody ended up with a role like this just eight years after winning an Oscar for The Pianist is anyone's guess (HIGH School was completed in 2010, two years before it was finally released), but there's no denying he gives this performance his all, and the results are weirdly impressive. Mykelti Williamson is similarly strong and even funnier as one of Psycho Ed's buddies, fittingly nicknamed Paranoid, and if Matt Bush has a largely thankless role as the straight arrow struggling to hold things together, he gives Henry a shade more depth and detail than the script probably required. (On the other end of the scale, Sean Marquette does just what's needed and little more as Travis.) Michael Chiklis shamelessly overplays as Principal Gordon, but he seems to be having so much fun as the awkward bundle of rage that it would be almost petulant to point out that he should have held back a bit (he also wrote and sings a song that plays over the closing credits). Meanwhile, Colin Hanks, Yeardley Smith, and Curtis Armstrong are engaging as members of the faculty struggling to deal with being dosed. As often as not, HIGH School is clumsy and obvious, but just enough of it works that it gets by, almost in spite of itself; this is the cinematic equivalent of a student getting good marks in remedial math, and if the bar set for it isn't terribly high, the grading curve sure works in its favor.