Wednesday, September 07, 2011

The Angst of the Privileged: Tanner Hall

For many, boarding school films bring back a flood of memories, presumably of snobbery, puberty, and peer pressure—not that us working stiffs would know. However, it is a world well familiar to a debut filmmaking team, whose blood is about as blue as it gets. Tatiana von Furstenberg is who you suspect she is: the daughter of designer Diane von Furstenberg and Prince Egon von Furstenberg, as well as the step-daughter of Barry Diller. Her co-writer-director is Francesca Gregorini, the daughter of Count Augusto Gregorini and actress Barbara Bach (and the step-daughter of Ringo Starr, no less). The privileged world of an elite Northeastern girls’ schools inspired their scrappy little indie-that-could, Tanner Hall (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Rooney Mara plays Tanner Hall upperclassman Fernanda, who will eventually attend Boston University, where she will have the profound misfortune of dating a creepy but wicked smart Harvard computer science student, but that is for a different film. Tanner concerns itself with Fernanda’s senior year, which starts rather awkwardly when she realizes her childhood sort-of friend Victoria has transferred to the swanky school.

Naturally, Victoria is artificially attractive in the requisite Gossip Girls way. She has also always been something of a trouble-maker, even when Fernanda knew her. Unfortunately, her roommates fall somewhat under the sway of Victoria’s rebel persona. Ordinarily, Fernanda might battle her for the soul of Tanner Hall’s senior class. However, as her flirtations with Gio, the live-in boyfriend of her mother’s old chum, grow more serious (and possibly illegal), the notion of sneaking out of the cloistered Hall suddenly does not sound so bad.

It is impossible to imagine Mara as Lisbeth “Dragon Tattoo” Salander when watching her in Tanner. Still, she is a reasonably likable junior Natalie Portman. She is not the film’s problem (indeed, she is obviously the reason for its long-in-coming release). Conversely, Georgia King is kind of grating as Victoria, the crying-on-the-inside bad girl. Strangely though, Chris Kattan is not nearly as annoying as usual playing the hen-pecked English teacher Mr. Middlewood. In the predatory Lolita role, Brie Larson is certainly convincing enough, toying with Mr. Middlewood like a cat with a mouse. Unfortunately, Amy Sedaris never really gets a chance to cut loose as Mrs. Middlewood, the sexually frustrated hall director.

Largely lacking tonal consistency, Tanner veers all over the place, grasping at nearly every convention of boarding school dramas in hopes that one will click. Adult supervision though, is conspicuously lacking. Frankly, the film could use a Miss Jean Brodie. While its humor is rather smarmy (not much of a shock, coming from Sedaris and Kattan) it does nicely convey a sense of some of the (still) girls developing a sense of themselves. Nevertheless, the problematic and most likely prosecutable relationship between Fernanda and Gio is a big clumsy distraction, never properly resolved.

To the credit of von Furstenberg and Gregorini, Tanner never gets draggy. Though it might be over-the-top at times, the film holds viewer attention, in part because of the ragged edges. Substantially flawed but certainly not torturous, it is a somewhat common examination of upper class angst. For the curious, it opens this Friday (9/9) in New York at the AMC Empire.