Carson Phillips is dead. While walking to his car after school, the high school senior, who served on the student council, edited the school newspaper, and served as president of the Clover High Writers’ Club, was struck by lightning. The film tells the story of Carson’s (Chris Colfer; Glee) final weeks before his death, which mostly involved his starting a school-wide literary journal in a last-ditch effort to get into Northwestern University. What results is an adolescent comedy reminiscent of Orange County, Juno, or Easy A, but unfortunately Struck By Lightning never quite lives up to the quality of these other films.
Let’s start with the things I legitimately enjoyed about this film. The cast assembled here is fantastic. I’m a huge fan of Christina Hendricks (Mad Men) and Allison Janney (The West Wing). I’m more and more enjoying Rebel Wilson (Pitch Perfect) as a comedic actress, and I was also pleased to see great comedic actors like Ken Marino (Children’s Hospital) pop up here in small roles. I also really loved the ending, after the film loops back around to Carson’s death and how the other characters are changed or not changed by that. It provides a lot of great moments for Janney, Wilson, and Sarah Hyland (who plays the captain of the cheerleading squad). Not sure if these great character moments justify the ending or the film’s structure, but that brings us to things I almost liked about the film.
The problem with almost liking something is that you still don’t like it. I think that setting up Carson’s death in the opening was the best possible option for having the character’s story end that way, but I’m not convinced it was the best way to go for this story. I get that death is random and life can be unfair, but I would have liked to see Carson’s death mean something. Plus, the little winks to the audience throughout the film to remind us that the lightning strike is coming is really annoying. I also almost like Carson character. Colfer emerges as a surprisingly good actor here, and it’s nice to know he’s capable of playing something beyond his super-androgynous character on Glee. My huge problem with Carson is that he can’t help but demonstrate with everything that comes out of his mouth how much better he is than everybody else in this little town. This might be fine if it weren’t for the fact that Carson is continually needing things from his classmates – specifically, to contribute to his literary magazine so he can go to Northwestern, but when he announces the magazine to the student body, he can’t seem to help himself but to imply they’re all witless, uncultured Neanderthals. He is then of course surprised when the students stuff his submission box with garbage. He’s not at all a likeable or sympathetic character, and sure he has the artificial wit of someone who’s every line has been polished over time, but ultimately he proves himself to be the worst character in an ocean of clichés and stereotypes.
When seeing that Colfer wrote the screenplay for Struck by Lightning, I became curious to see how old he actually is. He’s 23, and I have to say that that doesn’t surprise me at all. It’s an odd age for a writer; between forgetting what it’s like to be a teenager and not yet having any idea what it is to be an adult. So, we’re left with a movie where Colfer’s character is written to be this hyper-intelligent, witty, capable, social outcast, while every other student falls into a neat little archetype box: The cheerleader, the jock, the weird fat girl, the goth, the pothead, the theatre student, the celibacy tyrant. You’ve seen these characters a thousand times, and very little would surprise you about their portrayal here. Although, to give credit where credit is due, one of my favorite scenes in the movie is where Carson and Claire (Sarah Hyland) have a conversation about how she wanted to be a ballerina when she was in 2nd grade and how that dream slipped away from her at some point. It’s frustrating to know Colfer was capable of writing like that, but didn’t take the time to make the entire film character-driven and interesting.
In addition to the student-sized clichés walking around, we have the possibly bigger problem of the adult characters in the film. Carson’s mother (Janney) has a variety of chemical dependencies and keeps talking about how she never wanted a baby. His dad (DermotMulroney) left when he was 12 with no explanation. His guidance counselor (Angela Kinsey) knows nothing about her job, and his principal (Brad William Henke) is constantly on a power trip to make his students’ lives miserable. The theme to these characters seems to be that they’re all pathetic, petty little children, which again only serves to make Carson seem like the most “adult” character in the movie. The only believable adult character is April (Christina Hendricks), who is engaged to Carson’s dad. She actually manages to feel like a real character with real inner-conflict that is believable to the film.
Overall, the film just misfires in too many ways. It’s quirky for quirky’s sake with non-realistic moments thrown in just to get a laugh. For example, the sign at Carson’s funeral reads “Lightning Boy’s Funeral. Bingo 4pm.”
Special features include a behind the scenes featurette, interviews with Chris Colfer and Director Brian Dannelly, Bloopers, and Deleted Scenes. Available now on Blu-ray and DVD from Tribeca Film.