by Alexandre Paquin
Ah, that ancient and not-quite-respectable movie genre, the collegiate comedy. According to film tradition, everything that happens in college, especially if that everything comes dressed in a bikini, has more importance than actually studying, or graduating for that matter. In this respect, "The Perfect Score" could unofficially be described as a prequel to a collegiate film, as its leading characters are going through their last year of high school, and as some of them are entertaining the prospect of moving on to an institution dedicated to higher partying... I mean, learning. For the record, though, it would have been a great deal better if these hopefuls had all been accepted to college before the opening scene of "The Perfect Score", for we would have been thankfully spared this film.The Perfect Score revolves around six high-school students who, for various reasons, end up attempting to steal the answers to the upcoming SAT retake examination. For non-Americans such as myself, the SAT, or Scholastic Assessment Test, is probably unfamiliar. From what I gather, it is an omnipotent standardized examination that is supposed to measure a student's aptitude for higher education, and obtaining a good SAT score is apparently important enough to warrant a Watergate-style break-in -- just about as clumsily executed, it turns out -- to steal the answers.
"State-approved rebellion, kids!"
Three of the six pieces of cardboard that serve as the film's protagonists would, not surprisingly, benefit from a good SAT score: Kyle (Chris Evans), an average student, wants to study architecture at Cornell; his buddy Matty (Bryan Greenberg) wants to attend the University of Maryland, where his girlfriend is currently studying; Desmond (basketballer Darius Miles) wants to pursue a career in the National Basketball Association but needs to enter college to refine his technique on the court. The three other students more interestingly could not care less about their own SAT scores. Francesca (Scarlett Johansson) just wants to rebel against the system; Anna (Erika Christensen), the runner-up valedictorian, has no intention of going to college but is being pressured by her parents; and Roy (Leonardo Nam), the school's pot smokestack, just happens to be indulging in his favourite pastime when he overhears Kyle and Matty talking about their plan, and decides to join apparently because it promises to be fun.
Indeed, there is nothing more fun than watching half a dozen actors, most of them too old for their parts, try to convince us that their whole lives hinge on that fateful SAT score, and that it is more worthwhile to steal the answers than actually studying for a change. Any alternative to the risky course of action that the protagonists settle on, namely breaking into a government building in the middle of the night, is quickly and unsatisfactorily dismissed in one scene -- "well, we don't have time to study for the exam" and similar arguments. Instead, they would rather spend hours planning a heist that has only a minimal chance of success, thus proving that teenagers need to stay away from an excess of television and films like this one. Of course there will be obstacles, of course some of aforementioned students will fall in love, and of course they will all achieve what they want to achieve.
The Perfect Score is all about wishful thinking and about bucking the system while taking advantage of it, certainly not about trying to rebel against it on anything other than its own terms. All in all, the film contains as much rebellion against the system as illegally downloading Britney Spears songs might. It's strictly about personal gratification, and, in the end, no opposition to the establishment at all -- on the contrary. The film indeed makes doubly sure that we get the point that rebellion is futile -- there is no to-hell-with-the-SAT attitude at any point in the film (even Francesca becomes dangerously mainstream), and in the end, it might have been just as well if the burglary had never been committed. Perhaps that is why the utterly predictable dénouement was tacked on, a throwback to the old Production Code era in all its glory that leads ultimately to the reassertion of social structures.
What escapes criticism through it all? Why, the system, of course, and more particularly, the SAT examination itself. Oh, it is brushed on very rapidly along familiar lines -- that it is racist, or that it is a rigid and inaccurate way of evaluating a student's college potential -- but there is nothing in there that loudly and clearly states that a systematized approach to education, in the United States or elsewhere, is a failure. However, what can we expect from a film that clearly has no understanding of something as simple as a grade point average?
A handful of scenes in the picture actually work quite nicely, for example very early in the film when Kyle obtains a printed version of the answers and enthusiastically proceeds to confuse a photocopier with a paper shredder, but The Perfect Score suffers from severely stereotyped characters, both racially and scholastically, and definitely lacks continuity. In one scene, for example, Francesca questions Anna's motivations for participating in the heist, and wants to hear everybody's reasons. Everybody explains why -- except Miss Number Two herself, yet nobody, not even Francesca, seems to notice. In another scene, two of the characters, by then madly falling in love with each other, converse at length, in plain view, in a room where, a few scenes earlier, they had been escaping from a rotating surveillance camera's field of sight. These are but a few examples from a badly conceived film built on layers of stereotypes, a film where parents of academically talented girls listen to classical music and where every night security guard is dangerously obese.But it must be asked, who cares? The film is unlikely to make much of an impact at the box office, and is so blatantly tailored to its audience that any attempt to rebel against it is just about as futile as fighting windmills. But in this there is a lesson that one will not learn from "The Perfect Score": It's the cause of the rebellion itself, not its success or failure, that really counts.
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originally posted: 02/01/04 03:56:51