Ronald Gibb (Tim Daly) is a bit of a loser; he teaches American History to indifferent high school students in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere. He lives in a tiny trailer, drives a piece of shit car, and pretty much talks to no one. But he's got a secret: he harbors a taboo crush on one of his students, pretty cheerleader Ally Palmer (Hayden Panettiere), and he's not sure what to do about it, except drive himself crazy.
This is the set-up for The Good Student, and throughout the first act, it seems content to play out as a low-rent Election, mimicking the tone, sense of humor, small-town high school setting, even the score and use of voice-over narration by the luckless teacher protagonist. Then Ally is kidnapped, and we're watching a different film; it's as if we've picked up the remote and clicked from Election on Comedy Central to Ransom on TNT.
Screenwriter Adam Targum and director David Ostry make a fatal error at this point, trying to turn the material from bemused comedy to straight-forward thriller. It doesn't work. The tone is problematic throughout the film; time and again, we go back and forth from the dilemma of Mr. Gibbs to poor Ally bound and gagged, accompanied by scary piano music. It's a pretty lightweight picture to begin with, and it simply collapse under the weight of so much gear-shifting.
Targum's script has some promising moments, but they're mostly in the first act and don't fully develop once the kidnapping story takes over. The dialogue has moments of occasional cleverness (particularly in the inventive profanities of William Sandler, who plays Ally's slimy car dealer dad), but much is riddled by clichés (Worst line: "You're hurt inside, just like everyone else on this green earth.").
Panettiere is as charming and likable as ever, but when the character disappears, she pretty much does as well (fans who pick up The Good Student because of her top billing and front-and-center placement on the box art will be disappointed by her limited screen time here). Tim Daly's performance pretty much mirrors the film--it starts strong enough, but the further the story goes astray, the less he seems to know what the hell to do. By the time Targum and Ostry spring the ridiculous "twist" ending on us, we don't blame him for his confused performance; Olivier couldn't have figured out how to play a character that ended at that point.
Sandler has a pretty good time with his colorful douchebag character, while Dan Hedaya is wasted in a role with (if memory serves) one dialogue scene (the storytelling, by the way, is so unclear that I'm not sure exactly what he had to do with anything). Director Ostry fumbles the proceedings fairly often; many, many scenes are hampered by clumsy staging and poor pacing, resulting in a picture that feels much longer than its slim 80-minute running time. It's a shame; there are interesting flashes here (derivative though they may be), but The Good Student is immediately forgettable.
The Good Student was shot on video (presumably for budgetary reasons), and frankly looks it. Using a 1.78:1 frame, cinematographer Jordan Lynn manages to pull off a film-like look in some establishing shots and trick photography moments, but dialogue scenes (particularly in the classroom) suffer from video-typical saturation in skin tones, while some scenes in dark settings (like a bar) are lit for film instead of video (resulting in an overlit, unrealistic look). There's also a strange scene in the middle of the film, in a bowling alley parking lot, where the picture suddenly and strangely switches to a nearly desaturated image--at first I thought it was a low-budget attempt to shoot "day for night", but the indoor scene that immediately follows is daytime, so I have no idea what was going on. It's absolutely unexplainable, unless this was a way to mark the disc sent to DVD Talk as a screening copy (there was a "screening copy only" burn-in throughout portions of the film).
At any rate, these appear to have been issues with the initial photography; as far as the transfer goes, it appears to be accurate, with no compression, dirt, or artifacts of note.
The disc offers only a 2.0 stereo mix, which is adequate if unimpressive; dialogue is audible, music and effects are subdued but clear.
Hilariously, the "DVD extras" menu lists one feature: "Spanish subtitles." Most would have placed this on a "languages" or "set-up" menu and owned up to the fact that there are no special features; as it is, this is a pretty unimpressive extra, especially considering that it didn't work on the disc we were sent.
The Good Student was originally titled Mr. Gibb, and the Internet Movie Database suggests the film was sitting on the shelf for more than two years before Universal picked it up for video release, probably thanks to Panettiere's subsequent success on Heroes. Their re-titling, in addition to their trailers, box art, billing change, and tag line ("Scandal is her best subject") suggest that they would like to shift the focus to Panettiere and pretend that the entire film is the sexy, Election-meets-Lolita comedy of its first act while ignoring the failed thriller elements of the rest of the film. Don't be fooled by what they would like it to be; it is what it is. Skip It.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.