Mike D'Angelo
June 22, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

In Wes Anderson’s delightfully offbeat ”Rushmore,” which fulfills (and then some) the promise of his quirky, little-seen 1996 debut, ”Bottle Rocket,” the film’s protagonist, doghouse-occupying Rushmore Academy student Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman, another member of the Coppola clan), succeeds as a nonconformist. Max is no paragon of virtue; on the contrary, he’s vain, arrogant, utterly self-absorbed — a fairly typical teen, in other words. Max’s world is borderline solipsistic; he’s apparently the founder or president of every extracurricular organization on campus, and we see virtually nothing of the student body apart from his chapel partner and obedient servant, Dirk (Mason Gamble). Max doesn’t need to find his own drummer to march to — there isn’t another percussionist anywhere within earshot.

Where ”Rushmore” abandons years of high school-movie tradition is in its depiction of parents and teachers as essentially benign. Max’s father (Seymour Cassel), a barber, is as kindly as can be, if occasionally a bit distracted. Miss Cross (Olivia Williams), the young teacher with whom Max falls desperately in love (his attempts to woo her, which eventually get him expelled, make up the film’s sketchy plot), is almost preternaturally patient and understanding. And Bill Murray turns in the best performance of his career (for shame, Academy members!) as millionaire Herman Blume, a middle-aged, unhappily married corporate tycoon who’s still a 15-year-old brat at heart.

”Rushmore” is the only movie I can think of in which an adult and a child truly behave as peers; there’s even a hilarious best-pals montage, with the pair popping wheelies together to the tune of John Lennon’s goofily ardent ”Oh Yoko!” Kids may well prefer the soothing, your-misery-is-not-your-fault worldview of ”Varsity Blues,” which grossed about as much in its opening weekend as Rushmore has earned in its entire theatrical run to date. But ”Rushmore” dares to imagine a world in which people of all ages exist on roughly the same emotional and intellectual plateau — and that, to my way of thinking, is the true blow to conformity.

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