September 19, 2002

Under the Radar

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Every year as we head into the fall Oscar season, several movies are inevitably labeled as ‘unflinching’ by the critics. These movies are generally lauded for being warts and all portrayals of love, family or war. Film can show us the unvarnished truth about any number of universal terrors, but flinches from accurately depicting the greatest horror of all: high school. Through film after teenage film the subject is tackled and misunderstood. Keith Gordon’s The Chocolate War succeeds where so many others have failed because it understands a single truth completely; it’s not that kids can be so cruel, it’s that they are, endlessly and always.

The film is set at an all boys Catholic school, Trinity, in the late 50’s. The school is run officially by a variety of Franciscan monks and unofficially by the Vigils. The Vigils have the best kind of influence; that which is so pervasive as to be implicit. Pressure from both administrations comes to bear on a skinny freshman, Jerry Renault (Ian Michael Smith). Jerry’s having a rough year. His mother has just died, his father is practically a non-entity and he’s just transferred to a new school. He unknowingly walks into a power struggle between the leader of the Vigils, Archie (Wally Ward), and the new headmaster, Brother Leon (John Glover). Archie and his sidekick Obie (Doug Hutchison) spot Renault and recruit him into the Vigils. All he has to do is perform a simple task. The annual chocolate sale is coming up. All Jerry has to do is refuse to participate for ten days. It is, as Archie points out, a far easier task than unscrewing all the chairs in Brother Tom’s classroom, which sent the teacher into a mental breakdown and the offending student into eternal detention. Ten days later, however, an unseen revolution has taken place in Jerry, and he continues to refuse to participate in Trinity’s “great tradition.” Unfortunately for Jerry, Leon can’t risk coming in under his quota (yes, the headmastership is decided by who gets the kids to sell the most chocolate) and Archie can’t stand to be made a fool. The headmaster and the Vigils conspire to make things very unpleasant for Mr. Renault.

The first time director’s attention to emotional detail gives the movie several uncomfortable realistic touches. Instead of backing off when learning about Jerry’s dead mother, the Vigils tease him the more mercilessly for it. The character everyone really despises is Obie, who has committed the unforgivable sin of being the nerd who hangs out with the cool kids. Then there’s a short scene which serves to establish the nature of the school. After the success of the falling classroom, Archie assigns a prank on the geography teacher. Every time he says environment (which he seems to drop into the lecture roughly every five words) the class will jump up, run around their seats and sit back down. Instead of the predictable clueless, weak teacher, we get a professional who beats them at their own game. He figures out the trigger for their display and proceeds to use the word in every sentence; exhausting the boys and embarrassing Archie.

The performances from the boys are uniformly good, with Ward finding an oily tragedy in his charismatic bully (we are almost sure this kid will end up a senator). The anchor of the movie, however, is Glover’s Leon. There are good teachers, there are bad teachers, and then there are those we remember for years after we’ve escaped, lessons retained through love or fear. The secret to Leon is that he is clearly insane (who stakes his reputation on chocolate sales) and should be ridiculous, but is so convinced of his sanity and rightness that he is terrifying. There is a truly mind blowing scene involving Christian dogma, perfection, group-think, Leon, and a ruler. Glover is a paradigm of malevolent intelligence as he twists one of his students so far around that he has him alternately apologizing for getting an A, proclaiming his own flaws and wanting to jump out the window. In the end Leon turns on the class, admonishing them for allowing him his cruelty and telling the traumatized boy: “you passed the hardest test of all — you stayed true to yourself.” The kicker is that the traumatized student appreciates Leon’s final approval. When Leon tells Jerry that the sale is, of course voluntary, but he pities those who don’t participate, we’re afraid.

Unpredictably, thankfully, the end result of Jerry’s eventual triumph effects little change. Leon remains headmaster, the Vigils remain dominant, and Jerry remains an outcast. The most satisfying payoff is that Archie becomes Obie’s sidekick. In the end, Jerry gets the most anyone can except out of adolescence: he survives it.

Archived article by Erica Stein