It’s been nine years since John Waters’s last film, “A Dirty Shame,” which describes the state of affairs for his fans, for whom roadshow productions of “Hairspray” the musical just aren’t the same. However, if you’d like to make a visit to a perfect facsimile of Watersland, then “First Period” is the movie that Mr. Waters would have made if, instead of a Baltimore Baby Boomer he’d grown up as an 80s kid in Southern California.
Taking the demented reins in hand are the triumvirate of Charlie Vaughn (director), Brandon Alexander III (writer/actor) and Dudley Beene (actor), all three of whom also share producing credit, and it’s uncanny how closely they follow the Waters mold, whether consciously or not.
The script itself is a parody of 80s high school movies and, like many of Waters’s own works, is ultimately simplistic in structure. Like his films, though, this isn’t about a trip from A to B – it’s about all the sideshows on that journey. The overall story wouldn’t win any awards, nor do I think it was meant to. You probably won’t notice, though, because the little stops along the way are just so enjoyable, and the dialogue is hilarious.
In a nutshell (or a C cup), here’s the story: fifteen year-old Cassie Glenn (Alexander, “Kids Eating Paste”) has just moved to a new town with her mother (Cassandra Peterson, “Elvira, Mistress of the Dark”) and is determined to become the most popular girl in school before she hits sixteen and womanhood, which happens to be at the end of the week.
Cassie — “superstar extraordinaire, you’re welcome!” — tries to get in with the cool kids, Heather (Lauren Rose Lewis, “Dexter”), Other Heather (Karli Kaiser, “Community Therapy”) and their hunky but basically clueless on-again, off-again boyfriends, Brett (Leigh Wakeford, “Be”) and Dirk (Michael Turchin, “Isolation”). However, this doesn’t go over so well, and she soon accidentally befriends strange girl Maggie Miller (Beene, “The Corporate Cut Throat Massacre”), who becomes her cohort for the rest of the film.
The two of them become attached at the hip for the rest of the film as they deal with the Heathers and the Hunks, some of the strangest teachers ever seen on screen, an hilariously wrong attempt at a pregnancy test, and, ultimately, humiliation and redemption.
Nothing here is meant to be taken seriously — after all, we have two adult men who are probably close to a decade out of high school themselves playing fifteen year-old girls — and yet, the final message of the film is very serious and very positive. Even some of the villains ultimately mend their ways in a feel-good ending.
This is where “First Period” most reminds me of the films of John Waters. While he has long been called the “prince of filth,” any of his films from “Polyester” on are actually far more tame in execution than what passes for gross-out comedy now, and this is because he clearly always had great affection for all of his characters, no matter how perverted they were by normal standards. The same is clearly true of director Vaughn. Nobody in “First Period” is anywhere near normal, and yet every single one of them is still relatable as a human being.
Waters is the grandfather of gross-out cinema, but with two grandkids. When his style is pulled off with intelligence and charm, we get line-crossing and yet thought-provoking works like “South Park” and “Family Guy.” When it is pulled off with neither of the above, we get celluloid abortions like “Movie 43.” Happily, “First Period” is firmly in the former camp. Intelligence and charm are all over the place here, no matter how uncomfortable the subject matter.
I really have to say that this is one of the first films I’ve ever seen that manages to deal with NC-17 subject matter in a PG-13 way, and the end result is something that would not make you uncomfortable to watch with your parents, grandparents, or kids. Even its most over-the-top moment, involving a pregnancy test taken with way too much gusto (con brio, in musical terms) would be perfectly safe for prime time TV.
As I mentioned before, the overall script is just fluff, but it’s fluff in support of many gut-bustingly funny moments, and it works because the cast commits to everything. For that, I should credit the director, Charlie Vaughn, who already has an impressive resume of short and indie films (“Flight to Sinai”, “Vampire Boys” “Bloody Mary 3D”, “Saltwater”), all created in the last four years. And, when it comes to getting people to do the Spencer Tracy thing — “know your lines, and don’t bump into the furniture” — he does an admirable job.
Actually, more than admirable, because he manages to turn a lot of unknown and relatively inexperienced actors into an ensemble with some incredible star cameos, all of which are worth mentioning. In rare non-Elvira mode, Cassandra Peterson hits all the right notes as Cassie’s wee bit too supportive mother. As “teachers who would have been arrested instantly nowadays,” Jack Plotnick (“Reno 911”) and Diane Salinger (“Carnivale”) give balls to the wall performances, he as the girls’ sex ed teacher who clearly has no idea what a vagina is; she as the art teacher who makes Patsy Stone’s mother look down to earth.
Rounding out the star cameos is 80s comedienne Judy Tenuta (“Plump Fiction”), with a turn as a self-admittedly fake psychic with a melted Barbie doll face and amazing voice.
Two lesser-known cast members, though, stand out. The first is Tara Karsian (“E.R.”) as a deadpan guidance counselor whose expressionless yet troubled responses to Cassie’s more and more outrageous biographical details nearly put me through the floor. This woman deserves a recurring role on a TV series now, and her performance is an object lesson for actors in comedy — the more seriously a character takes the ridiculous, the funnier it becomes. In fact, my greatest disappointment in the film is that she only has one scene in it. If this were a Hollywood picture, this would be her route to Best Supporting Actress nomination.
The other standout is Dudley Beene, as weird girl Maggie. Quite honestly, he walks away with the film without even trying, and he can do more with a single facial expression than most actors can do with an entire monologue. Like Plotnick and Salinger, he just goes for it, and the result is perfection. If you don’t find Maggie to be the most sympathetic character, despite her being written as the most pathetic, then you have no heart. This may be Cassie’s story, but Beene’s Maggie steals the show.
“First Period” is, most of all, just a fun romp. It’s a movie that will make you laugh, then make you feel. Also fitting with the times, it defies classification. It’s a film with gay undertones that is not a gay-themed movie. I like to think of it as “gaystream” filmmaking — or, in other words, a film that is ultimately supportive of gays and lesbians… and awkward teens. And weird adults. And everyone who is a little bit different — which would be everyone.
Mr. Waters would approve, I’m sure. Mr. Vaughn is going to go places I have no doubt. And I hope that “First Period” will be followed by second and third.