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February 2004

By Julian Roman
The Perfect Score
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Directed by: Brian Robbins
Producers: Roger Birnbaum, Jonathan Glickman, Brian Robbins, & Michael Tollin
Screenwriter: Mark Schwahn and Marc Hyman & Jon Zack
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Erika Christensen, Chris Evans, Darius Miles, Bryan Greenberg, & Leonardo Nam

Every once in a while a film genuinely surprises you. I really thought this movie was going to suck start my vacuum cleaner. Really, look at the trailer and posters. Four white kids, token black, token asian; it looks like another PC teenage crapfest slopped on us during the dead days of January. I'm pleased to report that my misgivings were totally off base and the movie's much better than the marketing. You have to seriously suspend disbelief, especially where the heist is concerned, but it offers valuable commentary on the state of education today. Standardized testing is a joke. There's a line from the film that I thought was absolutely brilliant. I can't remember which character says it, but it's something like žSince the day you're born in this country they teach you to be an individual, then they give you this test that rates everyone as the sameÓ. I really liked the political agenda. The filmmakers took a test that unfairly decides the future of every kid and hammers it with a very humorous story.

The film is narrated by Roy (Leonardo Nam), the stoner underachiever who spends his time hitting the bong and daydreaming. Kyle (Chris Evans) tanks his SAT practice test. He's a good student hell-bent on studying architecture at Cornell. His guidance counselor tells him to lower his expectations because of his substandard scores. Matty (Bryan Greenberg) is Kyle's best friend and an average student at best. He's infatuated with his girlfriend and wants to attend Maryland to be with her. His scores are garbage and he's got no chance. These guys are the average white kids from the suburbs. Luckily this suburb is in Princeton, New Jersey. That's where the office of the Educational Testing Service is located. The company that runs the soul-sucking mediocrity grinder known as the SAT.

Kyle and Matt concoct a scheme to steal the test. They enlist the help of the local disaffected rich girl, Francesca (the awesome Scarlett Johannson). She's important because her father owns the office building where ETS is located. Kyle brings Anna (Erika Christensen of Traffic fame) into the group. She's second in the class and froze-up on the practice test. Her parents push her like a mule to attend Brown University. Kyle has a crush on her and sat beside her when they both went down in flames. She brings in Desmond (Darius Miles from the Cavaliers). He's a star athlete that needs a 900 to attend St. John's. Roy joins the crew by chance. He's getting high in the bathroom and overhears Kyle's plans. This is the basic set-up and it seems pretty generic. The overwhelming success of the film is the interaction of the characters. They could have been so stereotypical, but grow tremendously while they become friends. I know that sounds incredibly cheesy, but it's true. The characters work and they make the film enjoyable.

Brian Robbins, the film's director, has made a career out of the teenage genre. He has produced or directed quite a few popular films and TV series. He's responsible for everything from Varsity Blues to Smallville. I remember him from the TV show Head of the Class. He played the tough talking, smart kid Eric. I liked that show and believe his experience there factored greatly in this film. He uses different visual styles, particularly in the dream sequences, to break up the story. It works because the film lags somewhat in the middle. He keeps the pace interesting by throwing us new looks. There's a dream sequence where Francesca imagines herself as Trinity from the Matrix. They copy it exactly and it's funny as hell.

I really liked the movie's philosophy. Standardized testing has no bearing whatsoever on aptitude. That's the crux of what they're trying to say. The characters in the film are all hoping for a future. They, like many kids in America, put tremendous pressure on themselves to do well on the SAT. It really is the educational demarcation line between the so-called smart and stupid. Pardon my language, but that's bull****. No test will ever have that much impact on your future unless you let it. Fate is not decided in Princeton, New Jersey. That's the lesson the characters learn and it's a good one.

The Perfect Score is an entertaining film. I feel it's being marketed poorly and might not reach the audience it's hoping for. That's too bad because the film is so much better than it looks. It has a good story, is well acted for the most part, and smartly directed. January is usually the garbage dump of cinema. It's the month when film companies drop their most undesired material. This film will be the shiny piece of furniture that you find on the street, wondering why someone threw it away. Go check it out, even if it's only for the scene where you see Scarlett Johansson's crotch. I bet that got your attention.