A film noir that takes place at a high school sounds impossible to pull off. It smacks of a director mashing together disparate styles just to watch them clash. And yet, Brick transcends all of these trappings to become one of the best films in years. It might seem impossible, but only if you forget what the film noir approach really is. The style has become such a part of the historical lexicon, we start to characterize it through clichés, the superficial hallmarks that pop up in well-known examples. Soon we're defining it with the stereotyped voice-over narrative and pointlessly ambiguous dialogue that comedians employ when the audience calls out "film noir" on Whose Line Is It Anyway? But Brick goes to something much deeper; it relies on those well-worn artistic qualifiers only as they serve the story and all the characters in it, since they were all created in the noir world from the bottom up. What's far more fundamental to noir than its deadpan one-liners and femme fatales is the way it alludes to a dark, scary world that lurks just below the surface of the ordinary. Behind plain-looking streets, inscrutable men, and enigmatic women is a sinister web of deceit and betrayal, corruption and greed. Brick accomplishes this seamlessly, and makes the setting seem like a natural fit; the goings-on in high school can be just as arbitrary, complex, and potentially dangerous as drug-running or insurance fraud. The effortless use of rapid-fire slang -- a standard cinematic behavior both for 1930s gangsters and modern-day teenagers -- comes off as perfectly organic. The heroes of noir are flawed everymen, only smarter, quicker, and cooler, and leading actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt scores a home run in this role. His protagonist is bitingly intelligent and magnetically relatable, constantly prompting the audience to cheer him forward and fear for his peril. The real magic of film noir is how it subtly repaints its content, warping the frightening, brutal nature of the darkest human behavior and making it into something both dangerous and beautiful: the ultimate cool. The way Brick accomplishes this task is perhaps the most impressive of its feats. It avoids both gum-snapping trendiness and unreasonable characterizations, finding a middle ground where what you see is strange enough to draw you in but believable enough to keep you watching.