There's no point in making any fuss about it - Tanner Hall caught this writer's eye almost entirely due to Rooney Mara, whose upcoming performance in the Fincher-adapted The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo granted this picture (originally produced in 2009) a reprise and a brief theatrical window. Now, having devoted the requisite ninety-odd minutes to Tanner Hall, it's not hard to see why it fell through the cracks - it's a low-stakes coming of age tale brimming with recycled elements that have been done better in better films. That said, it is puzzling that the elegantly-shot and scored film, with a fresh-faced and talented cast and a more-than-capable lead performance from Mara had such a bumpy road to the silver screen.
With the title referring to a New England (Rhode Island specifically, as the director's commentary illuminates) boarding school, we are introduced to Mara's Fernanda (or Fern) via a bit of precocious are-these-truly-the-days-of-our-lives monologue that pops up infrequently and completely shatters the mood when it does. Written and directed by Tatiana von Fürstenberg and Francesca Gregorini, a Princess and a Countess respectively, Tanner Hall plays it safe and by the numbers, but remains compelling, sometimes in spite of some genuinely questionable character actions.
Fern arrives at Tanner Hall to be warmly welcome by longtime friends - teen sexpot Kate(Brie Larson) and boyish Lucasta (Amy Ferguson). That pleasant feeling dissipates quickly when Victoria (Georgia King) barges into Fern's life and proceeds almost immediately to make all kinds of trouble. King is weighed down by a character with so few redeemable qualities that humanizing her requires a superhuman acting feat. While Tanner Hall does hint at a cliched dark past and reasons for Victoria's manipulative disobedience, her eventual redemption feels at best unearned, and at work completely artificial, a product of a film nearing the end of its runtime in a hurry to wrap up neatly.
Being that this is a coming-of-age film, the requisite challenges are served up to the four young ladies. Conservative Fern pursues a forbidden (!) romance with the married Gio (Tom Everett Scott), whose performance is only a few sexual advances removed from Juno and Jason Bateman's significantly better developed Mark. Meanwhile, Kate flexes her sex appeal on a susceptible (and soon willing) Mr. Middlewood (Chris Kattan), who years to ply himself from the clutches of his suffocating wife (Amy Sedaris). Kattan and Sedaris provide the liveliest and weakest portion of the film, granted less than caricatures to work with, with a toned-down Kattan wasted and reduced to lust-induced fantasies that are liberally cribbed from American Beauty.
Lucasta is granted the least screentime pursuing her unsurprisingly gender-focused storyline. It's a shame, since Ferguson plays the tomboy coming to terms with her desires well, despite being thrust into genre-preordained incidents that flesh out her interests and give her the courage to come into her own. Mara shows glimpses of promise in the most prominent role but even she is not asked to do much more than emote adequately.
Fern's introduction to the complexities of adulthood is sudden yet bathed in a romantic light and the film never stops to acknowledge the depth of the precipice she hangs off of. Low stakes hurt Tanner Hall and while the imagery (DP Brian Rigney Hubbard understands what makes fall such a melancholy season) is undeniably impressive, it's a facade for a film that can't seem to find proper footing.
The 1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen transfer is full of clarity and eye-catching imagery and free from any notable flaws. Even the night time scenes, including a major portion set a carnival are clear without feeling overlit.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound is equally good without going overboard. This is a small film, so the dialogue is clear and musical intrusions go well with the soft-spoken dialogue accompaniment. Credit is due for small-scale scenes feeling precisely that.
The trailer for the film is included, as well as commentary from our directors. It's a solid listen, with the ladies clearly good friends and able to dish out production trivia with the occasional zinger. Hardly memorable but a welcome addition - listen close as Furstenberg and Gregorini discuss the lack of extras on the DVD.
A genre exercise looking for an anchor, Tanner Hall remains pleasant but never compelling. Rent It.
The best of the five boroughs is now represented. Brooklyn in the house! I'm a hardworking film writer, blogger, boyfriend and hopeful Corgi owner. Find me on Twitter @markzhur and on Tumblr at Our Elaborate Plans...