In real life, misfit status is the bane of an adolescent’s existence, a guaranteed ticket to Hassleville. Anybody who turned on a TV set or picked up a newspaper in the wake of the Columbine massacre was deluged with experts warning of the ticking time bombs that are America’s young social malcontents. In the movies, on the other hand, nothing seems to discomfit a teenaged protagonist quite so much as the threat of being perceived as ”just like everybody else.” Two new-to-tape high school movies, Rushmore and Varsity Blues, aim to extol the virtues of nonconformity; one of them, against all odds, actually succeeds.
If you’ve guessed that the football picture isn’t the one that bucks cinematic convention, go ahead and try for the extra point. Varsity Blues is set in the pigskin-crazed burg of West Canaan, Tex., where Jonathan ”Mox” Moxon (Dawson’s Creek‘s likably bland James Van Der Beek), a second-string quarterback for his school’s football team, the Coyotes, is content warming the bench and concentrating on scholastic achievements. (An early scene shows Mox surreptitiously reading Slaughterhouse Five in the middle of a game, which in this context immediately brands him as a freak.) Before long, however, the team’s star QB is out with torn ligaments, and our diffidently handsome hero must contend with Coach Bud Kilmer (Jon Voight), a sadistic authoritarian who’s determined to win his 23rd district championship even if he has to trample over the fragile young bodies of his players to do it.
For all of its lip service to the glories of marching to a different drummer, Varsity Blues plods along to the same monotonous 2/4 beat that’s accompanied virtually every teen-oriented movie since love first found Andy Hardy. Winning isn’t everything, Mox insists in a hokey locker-room speech, though the film nonetheless builds toward the traditional big-game climax — victory being decided, predictably, with just seconds remaining on the clock.
More significantly, Blues follows the lead of John Hughes flicks in positing that clueless and/or vindictive adults are to blame for all of the world’s ills. Poor Mox is saddled with a Cro-Magnon dad who couldn’t care less that his boy gets accepted to Brown, as well as a flighty mom who’s blithely unconcerned that her younger son is experimenting with unconventional religious paradigms (”Kyle, did you start a cult? That’s so sweet!”). Coach Kilmer, meanwhile, is not merely a martinet, not merely a racist martinet, but an actively evil racist martinet — a man so irredeemably vile that at one point he threatens to monkey with Mox’s stellar transcript and destroy the kid’s future if he deviates from the Coyote playbook (all that’s missing is a scene in which Kilmer is revealed to also be a serial rapist). In the end, Mox sticks to his iconoclastic guns, but the plot within which he’s rebelling is as formulaic as geometry class.
Things are a lot less clear-cut in Wes Anderson’s delightfully offbeat Rushmore, which fulfills (and then some) the promise of his quirky, little-seen 1996 debut, Bottle Rocket. For one thing, the film’s protagonist, doghouse-occupying Rushmore Academy student Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman, another member of the Coppola clan), is considerably less idealized. Max, unlike Mox, is no paragon of virtue; on the contrary, he’s vain, arrogant, utterly self-absorbed — a fairly typical teen, in other words. Nor is he the usual outsider looking in. In fact, 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.
Varsity Blues: C-