Class Rank (2017)

“Annihilating an ecosystem for political appearances is not my modus operandi.”

So, how do you know when you’ve just watched a great film? Not a good film but a great film? Film is such an accretion of magical sleight-of-hand, such an array of hidden talents that I think you have to feel it. In your nads. It hits you precisely because you didn’t see that punch coming, you didn’t notice a setup. If you do notice something like editing or acting or the EQ on a microphone, that most usually means that the film has failed, unless it’s deliberately going for some neo-Brechtian questioning of form, of course.

The first time I watched Class Rank, I didn’t notice any of the technical aspects, I was way too immersed in the story. So, firstly, let’s say that Class Rank is magnificent from a technical point of view. Whoever worked on this film, from sound to set to edit to make-up to grips to costume, every single person who lifted the tiniest of their tiny fingers, you get a fucking A+. And a gold star. You’ve helped create a hyper-naturalistic story that feels like I’m watching a documentary about my most awkward moments at secondary school. Artifice invisible, I’m left with raw emotion.

As ever, no spoilers here but the basic premise is of hyper-geeky Bernard (Skyler Gisondo) and over-achiever Veronica (Olivia Holt). She has her eyes set on Yale and higher but this appears stymied when she only achieves a class rank of second, instead of first. Shenanigans then ensue when she realises Bernard may be able to help her if she in turn helps him with his campaign to replace French with Chinese on the school curriculum.

This may all seem very generic and, looking at the bald words, it is. If this were another rites-of-passage movie, many high jinks would line up to be ticked off, all present and correct. But Class Rank doesn’t do that. Instead, it does a deep dive into the characters of Veronica and Bernard, one that drags your heart along with it. Even as you laugh at the undeniably funny lines they trade, you know you’re not laughing at them in a cruel way. When Bernard asks, “Surely the melting of your dairy products is not more important than the future education of your child?” I giggled but he’s actually right. Like most of us geeks, both kids are well aware they’re out of step without it being simplified into your classic ‘jocks versus geeks’ or other high school comedy cliches.

Filling out their world is an ensemble of characters who are equally real even if they get much shorter screen time. No character is under-written or unimportant here. The gentle banter between Bernard’s Grandpa (Bruce Dern) and the editor of the local paper (Kathleen Chalfant) is sweet without ever being that special ageist sickly of ‘oooh, look, old people holding hands, aww!’ Veronica’s Mom (Kristin Chenoweth) is similarly un-caricatured and, again, I forgot she was acting… she was just her Mom in a tender and loving way. Then there’s Nick Krause’s insouciant grace as the shop bagger, Mike, watch out for him. I’m not kidding when I say the final scene with him made my eyes sting. Damn this hayfever.

Let me also take this paragraph to congratulate this film on having A GREAT SOUNDTRACK. In this respect, it’s the antithesis of most Hollywood in that there’s space and beats and it never intrudes or de-stabilises, it supports and helps tell the story. Y’know, like scores are meant to do? Well done, Brian Byrne. In a cinematic world overflowing with the same threadbare martial beats and monotonous pitchbent braaaaams, his score is a cold glass of water in a bloody desert.

It’s the final act of the film that left me stunned enough that I’m writing this review. When the complications happen, Holt and Gisondo are stunning, I was on the edge of my seat. There is such rawness and honesty here that it hurts, built as it is on how we’ve come to know and love both characters during the film. Nothing is overdone, everything makes emotional sense. It’s so rare to see scenes like this in film and even more amazing when you realise the actors were nineteen or twenty when they filmed them. These two motherfuckers played keepy uppy with my heart and I’m a cynical, fat old man. Be forewarned!

Finally, I have to praise writer Benjamin August and director Eric Stoltz for a brilliant story, perfectly delivered. This film could have settled with being farcical, it could have been throwaway, it could have been silly. Instead, there is such heart and candour here, about love, friendship, about the human condition at every age. As soon as the credits finished, I started writing this review and re-started the film from the beginning. I’m enjoying it even more second time around. Thank you for giving me this wonderful film.

It’s now one of my favourite films about love. I know I’ll be watching it again many times in the future.