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Hatley High

Ardustry Home Entertainment // Unrated // May 9, 2006
List Price: $19.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted May 18, 2006 | E-mail the Author
Think Friday Night Lights meets Searching for Bobby Fischer. In the sleepy little hamlet of North Hatley, life revolves around high school chess, and everyone's intrigued when Tommy Linklater (Nicolas Wright) strolls into town. Tommy's late mother, unbeknownst to him, was once the town's most gifted champion and could've been a grandmaster if the expectations surrounding a critical game against a group of visiting Russians hadn't sapped away her love for the game. While his father pens some indecipherable tome about science and human consciousness while struggling against writer's block and a fawning priest who acts as if he has a direct line to the Almighty, Tommy gives the local high school a whirl. He's quickly accepted into The Syndicate, a group of outcasts who would be the geeks in most teen flicks, but here, they're...well, they're still the geeks, but they're also the basketball team. After a couple of matches of a D&D knockoff and in between taping home-made slashers and police dramas, Tommy falls for Hyacinthe Marquez (Rachelle Lefevre), a cheerleader who's bright, beautiful, and rolls a mean twelve-sided die. Tommy picked up some of his mother's skills at chess, but even though he doesn't have any interest in playing, Shaun Rhodes (James A. Woods), the chest-thumping captain of the Hatley Knights, still feels threatened enough to make tormenting Tommy his hobby of choice. A reluctant battle royale, underground chess matches, and...hey, the return of the Russian team to Hatley soon follow. But see, Hatley High isn't really a plot-driven movie, so go ahead and ignore this much-too-long-and-really-kinda-bland summary 'cause it's better than I'm making it sound.

Hatley High has that indie comedy sensibility where it's...almost not a comedy, but that's the label that seems less uncomfortable than anything else Blockbuster could slap on it. I just mean that it doesn't set up a bunch of overly elaborate comedic setpieces or shoehorn in a bunch of one-liners and sight gags, preferring instead to establish an endearingly quirky premise, setting, and cast of characters and letting the laughs flow comfortably from there. I've seen a couple of comparisons to Napoleon Dynamite, but one big difference between the two movies is that Hatley High genuinely seems to like all of its oddball characters, not really shoving anything in front of the camera just to tear it down. The movie's greatest strength is its characters, and Hatley High knows it, wisely focusing its energies in that direction and not investing any more in the backdrop of a plot than it needs to. (I'm a little biased towards the cast, having recognized around half of 'em -- along with some of the settings, even -- from the widely overlooked Canadian comedy series Big Wolf on Campus.) There is kind of a recurring theme about making mistakes, prematurely dismissing people based on preconceived notions, and living up to one's full potential, and assuming I'm not reaching for something that isn't there, that message is delivered naturally and effortlessly, not as some sort of heavy-handed "...and knowing is half the battle!" coda. Hatley High has a less overt, almost distinctly Canadian approach to comedy than usual, and viewers should go in expecting more of a grinner than a laffer. It's not the type of movie where I'm in awe of its brilliance from beginning to end or anything, but Hatley High is sweet and silly enough to keep a goofy grin plastered across my face for the better part of an hour and a half, and readers with similarly offbeat tastes in comedy should keep an eye out for this DVD.

Video: Kind of a drag that the DVD isn't enhanced for widescreen displays, but the 1.78:1 letterboxed image still looks nice. The photography's really eye-catching -- the bright, colorful palette complements the cheerful, quirky tone of the movie -- and the image is generally smooth, sharp, and nicely detailed. Some light artifacting pops up (the DVD seems to have a rough time with large patches of red and navy blue), and a couple of scattered scenes have that overly digital video-on-demand look to 'em. That, and the whole non-anamorphic thing, knocks the score down a couple of stars, but its best moments look very, very pretty.

Audio: Along with the default stereo mix, the DVD also sports a Dolby Digital 5.1 track (384Kbps). Might as well be a 3.1 track 'cause the surround channels aren't really used at all. If I leaned in close to one of the speakers, I could hear a slight echo in the dialogue or a bit of percussion from the score, but aside from those barely discernable murmurs, the rears are pretty much dormant. The recording of the dialogue sounds kinda flat and edgy but is still intelligible. The music, though...the music's a definite highlight. It's ridiculously good, for one thing, genre-hopping from infectiously catchy guitar-pop to skwawking vintage analog synths and booming drum machines. It also packs more of a wallop than anything else in the mix; the thunderous kick drum in one song even knocked some stuff off one of my shelves. Too bad it's all dumped in a pretty mediocre remix, but it's still listenable. No closed captions or subtitles, by the way.

Supplements: Just a trailer, along with plugs for a couple other Ardustry releases. The DVD sports a set of 4x3 animated menus and is divded into eight chapter stops, and the disc comes packaged in a keepcase with no insert.

Conclusion: Hatley High's presentation on DVD is too lackluster to recommend shelling out fifteen or twenty bucks to buy, but this charming slice of something different is worth keeping in mind as a rental or picking up on the cheap.
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