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Thursday, May 14, 2015

Review: Sophomore

A Sophomoric Teen Comedy with Heart

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: October 7, 2014 – U.S.
Rating: NR
Genre: Comedy
Running Time: 98 minutes
Director: T. Lee Beideck
Writer: T. Lee Beideck
Cast: Robert Keiper, Amanda Plummer, 
Patrick Warburton, Kyle Wigent, Jared Bearce, 
Amaury Batista, Cory Mellor, Laura Carboni, 
Jamie Cobb, Ronnie Lewis, David Spiecher, 
Kristin Vahl, Cameron Bloomer, 
Chris "Smitty" Smith, Jeffrey Ferguson, 
Christian Bocka, Erin Foley, Brian Osborne, 
Matt Roe, Tree Clemonds

"Sophomore" is a strange little movie that ends up being quietly memorable and oddly endearing. It's a coming-of-age story with teenage gross-out hijinks. There's vomit, feces, and female breasts. But there's also a lot of heart.

The film is split into several sections: First Day of School, Freshman Friday, Drink King, and others – culminating, naturally, with the Last Day of School. Each little vignette focuses on different students, faculty, and staff.

There are a few name stars, but the cast is comprised mainly of unknowns and newcomers. They can't all be great actors, but none of them are bad either – and there are several surprising standout performances.

Robert Keiper is downright fantastic as a cool history teacher everyone calls Cap. Classroom scenes rarely work in movies, but Cap is the kind of educator most kids dream of having. The sophomores in his classroom certainly admire him. Keiper's IMDB profile is shockingly slim for such a great actor, but he apparently has plenty of experience doing theater, voiceover work, and audiobooks.

Amanda Plummer's angry, lonely math teacher, Miss Hutz, is the opposite of cool or well-liked. After she goes on a verbally abusive tirade and kicks a slacker named Lionel (Jared Bearce) out of class, he plots his revenge – by planning to sneak into her too-big house and use her toilet. Yes, sophomoric. Seeing his "deposit" there, he feels, will unnerve her. Much like her Oscar-winning father Christopher Plummer, Amanda Plummer knows how to craft a complex character with a wide range of emotions and nuances. Her heartfelt scene with Robert Keiper is one of the best in the film.

Dave Spiecher – who plays Blank, a 20-year-old high school senior – steals almost every scene he's in. Like most of the cast, he's been in hardly anything else (and, sadly, nothing since "Sophomore"). One of his funniest moments takes place on the first day of school in a freshman English class. While taking attendance, the teacher calls out the name "Thomas Chatham." Two students raise their hands – Blank and the real Thomas Chatham (Matt Roe, who also hasn't been in much, unfortunately). Now the poor kid is put in the awkward, uncomfortable position – on his first day of high school, no less, which is nerve-wracking enough on its own – of having to convince everyone that he actually is Thomas Chatham. The horrified expression on his face is priceless as he insists that "I'm Thomas Chatham!" in a frustrated, pleading voice. It's a small role, but the young actor makes the most of it. The facial reactions from the teacher, Miss Sawyer (Tree Clemonds), are also perfect.

Freshman Friday is a longstanding tradition at Helen Keller High where its newest students are egged, wedgied, and otherwise hazed. The freshmen in the movie look like little kids while the sophomores look far older than their 15 years – but maybe that's the point.

Another comical scenario involves Pam (Laura Carboni), Eddie (Amaury Batista), her cute green car, and her even cuter dog. The girl who plays Pam looks the right age or slightly younger, and is one of the better actors in the ensemble. However, the performer portraying Eddie – according to IMDB – is ancient for a high school sophomore. (Amaury Batista was born in 1972!) Likely, that's part of the joke too, because he gets a fake ID and no one bothers to card him.

A secret drinking contest is held after-hours at the school among the faculty and staff – including the janitor (Patrick Warburton) and coach (Brian Osborne) – with the winner being crowned the "Drink King."

Along with the sophomoric shenanigans, there's a side story involving a group of 7th graders – Bob, Elroy, Jeff, and Lenny (Cameron Bloomer, Jeffrey Ferguson, Christian Bocka, and Chris "Smitty" Smith). They're now discovering the opposite sex, and one of them has a crush on a pretty high school girl. Her name – appropriately enough – is Honey Brubaker (Kristin Vahl). She's Lenny's older sister, so the boys plan a sleepover at his house to get closer to her. This leads to a sweet scene between Bob and Honey. The performances from the four middle-schoolers are generally more natural and convincing than many of the older "sophomores" in the cast – probably because they haven't reached that age of self-consciousness yet.

There are other characters as well – maybe too many to keep track of – but almost all of them contribute to the narrative in some meaningful way. "Sophomore" is full of great moments – both funny and poignant – and much credit for those has to go to the writer (and director), T. Lee Beideck.

One of my favorite small touches in the film is a billboard outside the school with quotes on it: "The best way to destroy an enemy is to make him a friend." – Abraham Lincoln

I'm curious about the long road this movie went through to finally be seen. I don't have any concrete details, but behind-the-scenes shots and publicity photos were posted on Facebook all the way back in February 2009. IMDB indicates that it didn't come out for another three years after that – January 13, 2012, to be exact – but no other details are offered. (Perhaps it was shown at a film festival?) Meanwhile, the film's official Facebook page lists October 7, 2014 as the release date (I'm assuming that was its video-on-demand debut). I can't speak of any potential financial or distribution issues, because I simply don't know. I can only speculate that it was possibly a bit too weird and off-kilter to sell easily. Whatever the reason is, I'm glad it's available to a wider audience now.

Much like the teenagers in it, "Sophomore" has its fair share of zits – and shits and tits – but even with all of the imperfections inherent in a small movie like this, everyone involved was clearly passionate about it and believed in what they were doing. Its honesty and earnestness won me over.

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