In a virtuoso monologue early in the subversive, spawn-of-Scream teen thriller “Disturbing Behavior,” pasty outcast Gavin Strick (Nick Stahl, full of star potential) describes the unofficial seating plan of the Cradle Bay High School cafeteria to Steve Clark (James Marsden), a new kid who exudes just enough alienation to suggest that Gavin has spotted a brother in anomie. Seconded by a ?pigmently challenged? albino sidekick (otherworldly Chad E. Donella), Gavin identifies the jocks and the computer nerds, the auto-shop habitués and the punks who have constituted high school society for all eternity. Indeed, Gavin nails each subset?s music and drug habits with such deadpan verve that it?s clear he?d make a great scriptwriter for a WB TV project someday — if he doesn?t first fall prey to the curse of the Blue Ribbons.
They?re the highly motivated jock-and-cheerleader set, the overachieving goody-goodies who study hard and run bake sales. Inspired by school psychiatrist Dr. Caldicott (Bruce Greenwood), they?re model suburban youth?except when they go on murderous rampages. ?Adolescence is a minefield,? the creepy shrink warns the parents of potential recruits to his motivational workshops. He should know: His spécialité is tinkering with grenade-like teenage brains.
In addition to all it owes “Scream,” “Disturbing Behavior” blithely draws sincerest-form-of-flattery inspiration from olders and betters including “The Stepford Wives,” “Village of the Damned,” and, heck, even Sherlock Holmes. (There?s a mortal struggle at a waterfall.) The “X-Files” training of director David Nutter (making his feature debut) and cinematographer John Bartley reveals itself in the movie?s overarching tone of sardonic darkness, its delight in light and shadow. And credit goes to the WB?s “Dawson?s Creek” for popularizing the tough-cutie charms of Katie Holmes: As Gavin?s chum who strikes sparks with Steve, Goth-chic in a nose ring, blood-red lipstick, and a midriff-skimming top, she?s a junior dish?what Girl Power looks like when it cuts class.
But for all its influences, “Disturbing Behavior” establishes a semi-real, semi-supernatural, part-mocking, part-commiserating genre of its own?a state so precarious that those expecting chillier frights or warmer laughs may be disappointed. Conformity, it counsels, is the work of the devil, operating in cahoots with parents who sell out their kids. But kids, it also suggests, can be as creepy as zombies, as bitter as inmates, as bad as vermin. You want school spirit? I?ve got your school spirit right here. Ka-blammm.