She tried to sit in my lap while I was standing up. — The Big Sleep
Do you trust me now?
Less now than when I didn’t trust you before. — Brick
Brick, directed by Rian Johnson, and released on DVD in August, is a great noir mystery, reminiscent of Dashiell Hammett or James Ellroy. Like any Bogart film or Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential, it has sharp, witty dialogue which is less realistic than it is how we all desperately wish we could communicate.
It is set in Southern California which, for all its natural and artificial beauty, has another side — a yellowing grass, dying palm tree, mall parking lot suburban wasteland which can appear very much like hell without any imagination whatsoever. It has a beautiful blonde in distress, a loner who wants to save her, authority figures who want him to rat or be sold down the river, a complicated web of bad drugs and betrayal, a drug kingpin who may or may not be real, and a sultry brunette who is definitely femme, possibly fatale as well.
Every great mystery has its conceit. In The Maltese Falcon it was to believe a nebulous black statue was worth dying for. Chinatown depends upon accepting that, in Southern California anyway, water is something worth killing for. Brick requests that you accept that high school is one of the most dangerous places on earth, and late adolescence the most dangerous time.
Our hero, Brendan, receives an hysterical, almost unintelligible phone call from his ex-girlfriend Emily. Two days later she is dead. He starts asking questions. “Who’s she been eating lunch with?” he asks a friend. “I couldn’t say,” is the reply. “Lunch is many things. Lunch is complicated.” Brendan could call the cops, but knowing who done it isn’t enough. He needs to know why, maybe break a few heads, make somebody pay for what he couldn’t prevent.
The problem with most movies set in high school, even clever ones, is that the stakes are so very low. Will he/she go with me to the prom? Will I pass the essential exam? Will the big game be won? Will my parents let me down in some critical way and yet will I grow enough to forgive their humanity? Even edgy or macabre tales like Heathers or Mean Girls, which show just how evil teens can be to each other, are presented as comedies, with a knowing wink to the audience.
We laugh and shake our heads. Aren’t we so much older and wiser now? If we’re honest with ourselves, we would acknowledge that our relief comes from a much more primal place. Like war veterans, we are just desperately glad to be out of there with all our limbs intact. Under no circumstances, even knowing now what we didn’t know then, could we be induced to go back. Repression and careful whitewash of memory seems the only way we could be induced to send our own children through the gauntlet.
Adults may stumble in and out of the periphery, but teenagers inhabit a world unto themselves. Caste is determined by where and with whom one eats lunch. Friendships are malleable, practical coalitions designed to help navigate rocky shoals. Love is a heavy weight. As currency it doesn’t buy much. It certainly isn’t enough to save friends from destroying themselves.
The grace of Brick is that it acknowledges just how very high the stakes are for those who wander the linoleum halls. High school is not where one spends the last golden days of childhood, but the place where one gets jumped into the gang of adulthood. If Lord of the Flies is not assigned reading, it should at least be issued as a survival guide. Brick knows that some kids get lost. They don’t successfully navigate anything. They make serious mistakes, make wrong choices, that will determine a downward trajectory for their lives.
If I’ve made it sound all dark and dismal, rest assured that, like the best film noir, there is plenty of humor. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who I confess is my new baby crush (sorry Jake Gyllenhaall) portrays Brendan, the stoic, wisecracking kid whose brain never stops working the angles, who is always hiding a surprise up his sleeve, even as he wears his heart upon it. Emilie de Raven, known to some of us as Claire from Lost, takes a welcome respite from the land of whine and mangos, to give us Emily, the ethereal beauty Brendan cannot let go. Emily left Brendan because she couldn’t stand his solitary life, but her attempts to transform into a social butterfly prove deadly. Like the best gumshoes, Brendan is motivated not only, or even mainly, by love, but by guilt.
Brick isn’t perfect. It appears that the characters attend a high school completely bereft of a student body, beyond themselves. A few of the characters push the lid over the top, and a few are confusingly extraneous. But in its entirety, the movie is entertaining as hell, and I still find myself musing over what became of the characters after the title credits roll. It’s a great accomplishment for a young director with a young cast.
Teen movies often have an unspoken underlying premise in which high school is seen as less serious than the adult world. But when your head is encased in that microcosm it's the most serious time of your life. – Rian Johnson
--This article has been modified since it was originally published on my sister site, Popular Librarian in June of 2006.