Sometime in the summer of 2009 I opened video on-demand as I played World of Warcraft deep into the night. Usually, I’d be chatting with my high school friends who also played, running something I’d seen a million times before like King of the Hill (1997-2010) in the background, half-watching, half-socializing, half-playing in that excessive way of multitasking that atrophies around age 21. Not this time though. This time I was alone and willing to do whatever it took not to go to bed. And so, I scrolled until a title caught my eye: Assassination of a High School President (2008).
I expected little more than a backdrop against which to kill demons and orcs. Indeed, I probably chose this film because its name and cover promised perfect background noise. How wrong I was. Soon enough, gaming had taken a backseat to this high school neo-noir comedy. I was entranced—and not just because the film’s femme fatale, Francesca, is played by Mischa Barton.
Reviving noir is a tricky business. The genre is more than detective stories brimming with twists, femme fatales, and 50s fast-talking in pants so high-waisted they count as onesies. As both my aging hippy neighbor and the kids might say, it’s a vibe. Best done in black and white, the world should teem with shadows; the protagonist should be a victim of circumstance, situationally hapless, even if otherwise competent. Sunset Boulevard (1950), among the greatest films noir, illustrates how much more expansive the genre is than we often think. Therein lies the problem. We think we get noir; we end up cramming our revivals with a whole lot of half-committed allusions and then call it a day.
The cardinal sin among many of the noir necromancers is the lingo. Take Brick (2005) for example. A quick look at some online reviews reveals that many compare it favorably with Assassination of a High School President. I’ll save my detailed takedown for another day but trust me: Brick is a much worse film. In fact, it’s just bad; my passion for AHSP be damned. It’s played totally straight as a high school gumshoe story. Everyone, all kids—from drug addicts to athletes to losers to the most popular girls in school—talk like parodies of third-rate Dasshiell Hammet imitators. It makes no sense, confuses the viewer amidst an already winding plot, and does little else besides perhaps draw our attention to the movie’s artifice. As neo-noir, Brick leans heavily on standard tropes and ends up sleeping with the fishes, see?
The writers of Assassination of a High School President, Tim Calpin and Kevin Jakubowski understand that playing it straight when setting a detective noir in a high school is unlikely to go well. And so, our main character, Bobby Funke (Reece Thompson), is an over-confident loser whose obsession with Woodward and Bernstein is played for laughs. He’s the victim of constant harassment, from light ribbing to bullying (“aren’t you the freshman they tied naked to the flagpole?” “Sophomore,” he responds). No one ever remembers who he is, and no matter how many times he insists his name is pronounced “funk,” everyone keeps saying “funky.” He’s a dweeb, swallowed up by his too-large Catholic-school blazer.
His Hammett-esque way of speaking (he narrates the movie in overblown noir fashion) mirrors the absurd world around him. His Spanish teacher, for example, Padre Newell (Josh Pais) communicates everything in a language none of his students can understand in a high-pitched, almost lisped voice. Worse, he mispronounces “página” such that it rhymes with “vagina.” The school’s in-house suspension program is essentially a prison, with time-limited interviews and roughhousing guards. The school’s head, Principal Jared T. Kirkpatrick (Bruce Willis), is a Desert Storm vet with a prosthetic leg who forces assembled students to sing a song honoring the flag. A Desert Storm vet. Even the plot Funke sets out to uncover is just “who stole the SATs.” The eponymous assassination is, well, undercut in the way you might expect from a movie unafraid to not take itself too seriously.
Since I first saw AHSP, one line has stuck with me above all others as representative of the film. Funke is at a school dance, finally getting an opportunity to grow close with Francesca Fachini (Mischa Barton), a popular girl who (in storied noir fashion) contracts him to find those missing tests. Nebbish that he is, Bobby turns to his new gang of sleuthing misfits—all outsiders and hoodlums he originally suspected of being the culprits—and asks what’s on his mind: what do I do if I get an erection? Without missing a beat and in his nasally New Jersey way, Dutch Middleton (Joseph Perrino) advises that he tuck it into his belt. “Sometimes,” he says, “you just can’t control these things. Like in the morning, when you gotta go. You just gotta slam its head in the bowl like it owes you money.” Noir? Yes. But also funny and (for all the former and current teenage boys out there) relatable.
In other words, Assassination of a High School President manages to be a high-school movie even as it’s a detective noir. I don’t mean that in a cheap way, where it’s all crass sex jokes and a plot so paper thin you could shave with it. It deals with adolescence (all the more when you’re a Catholic high school student from New Jersey, where the movie is set). Its ironic stance toward film noir keeps it from atrophying, doubling over in self-seriousness. AHSP isn’t a perfect film. But it pulls off something few adult movies do, let alone ones geared at teens—it strikes a balance and knows its limits. It takes risks. In the 2023 Cinematic Universe, couldn’t we use more of that?