Brick

Brick is a special film, a jazzy, surreal hybrid of high school drama and classic film noir. Writer/director Johnson's script is filled with heavily stylized dialogue, influenced by '30s crime writer Dashiell Hammett (in fact the story reminds me of Hammett's 1929 novel Red Harvest), so baroque and poetic that it's hardly even English anymore.

Some viewers may get confused (no way can one catch everything on first viewing), others may get turned off, but I found this language of invented slang and oddball patter quite invigorating, as did several other audience members: I've never seen so many people leaning forward as they watch a film, not only from being pulled into the story but also having to pay close attention so as not to miss any crucial plot elements amongst the dizzying wordplay. In lesser hands, this stylized speech would come across as pretentious. But Johnson and his cast – led by an excellent Joseph Gordon-Levitt – commit to it so fully that one can only be impressed by its audacity.

Everything in the film is consistent with this stylized tone: Nathan Johnson's textured score, Steve Yedlin's eerie, fog-drenched cinematography, and of course the actors, who don't give a single knowing wink as they portray noir archetypes in teenage bodies. This isn't some Bugsy Malone-like preciousness; these people are dead serious about telling a classic hard-boiled detective tale set in a high school milieu, even though there is an obvious absurdity to it all.

Or is there? In turning its nerds into private eyes, its jocks into fall guys, and its theatre geeks into femmes fatales, Brick really just romanticizes the traditional roles of high schoolers, while also suggesting a fantasy of murder and intrigue that many bored suburban teens (the film is shot in lovely seaside San Clemente, California) might prefer over the drab rigmarole of their real lives.

On a side note, I've noticed a new trend in the more offbeat high school movies of recent years. Brick takes place ostensibly in the present, but its time period is so vague that it could have happened at any point during the last two decades. (When a cell phone makes a single brief appearance, it feels like an anachronism.) Several other highly-acclaimed high school movies – Napoleon Dynamite, Donnie Darko, The Squid and the Whale, Ghost World, Thumbsucker – are either explicitly set in the '80s or during a vague present that feels like the '80s. It's as though these mostly thirtyish directors are recapturing the period either out of nostalgia, or because today's abundance of information technology can screw up a traditional narrative (it's hard to imagine Brick with everybody texting each other), or because pop culture over the last fifteen years has been so inundated by hip hop that, by placing their mostly white characters in '80s or pseudo-'80s environments, these filmmakers can safely keep their teenage protagonists in a John Hughes Neverland. (To be fair, Brick has a more multiethnic cast than most high school movies.)

Today's actual teenagers, with their tattoos and their thongs and their bling, are rarely found in today's independent cinema. But I can't blame these indie filmmakers entirely: contemporary teens can, to this old man, seem so shallow, oversexed, and depressing when compared to their more innocent-seeming forebears. So in a way, Brick's ultra-noir fantasia is only an extension of these films' retro vision of high school life.