Anyone who believes there’s no class system in America has never been to high school. From the moment you first walk through the doors as a freshman to the day you leave, hopefully with a diploma in your hand, high school is a place where certain kids are blessed with an aura that makes them untouchable and impervious, while others are doomed to be pariahs, and moving from one strata to another is all but impossible, regardless of intelligence or accomplishment. This is such an obvious and universal fact that it’s surprising the movies have never made more of it; there have been hundreds of films set in high schools, but most attempt to pretend that the social and cultural divides aren’t especially deep, and celebrate unlikely stories of those who try to hop from one level to another. Writer and director Bryan Goluboff tries to put a different spin on the fable of the teenage rebel trying to overcome the stasis at an upper-class high school in the comedy-drama Beware the Gonzo, but while it’s smarter and more in touch with the mindset of the teenage nation than most movies that have followed this path, most of it still rings hollow, particularly when it reaches for deeper themes and comes up short.
Beware the Gonzo stars Ezra Miller as Eddie "Gonzo" Gilman, a student at Parker Prep, a private school in New York State that’s just exclusive enough to be pricey without being especially exclusive. Gonzo wants to be a journalist, and his parents -- high-strung real-estate agent mom (Amy Sedaris) and lawyer dad who’s too idealistic to make much money (Campbell Scott) -- are hoping he can get into Columbia’s prestigious journalism school.However, Gonzo is a self-styled rebel and low-level troublemaker who is kicked off the staff of the Parker Prep Courier school paper after the latest in a series of arguments with student editor Gavin Reilly (Jesse McCartney). Gavin is both Gonzo’s nemesis and the school’s Golden Boy, the handsome and charming captain of the wrestling team and academic overachiever who can seemingly have anything (or anyone) he wants. Tired of Gavin running the same cookie-cutter stories over and over again, Gonzo decides to start a paper of his own to dig up the dirt Gavin refuses to touch. With the help of a handful of other student outcasts -- skinny genius and school punching bag Scott Marshall Schneeman (Edward Gelbinovich), shy but keenly observant Ming Na (Stefanie Y. Hong) and Rob Becker (Griffin Newman), who sees erotic potential in female students most of the boys wouldn’t touch -- he launches an underground student paper called The Gonzo, and gains an unexpected ally in Evie Wallace (Zoe Kravitz), a sexy student who has a reputation she doesn’t deserve and a gift for web design. The Gonzo becomes a hit among the Parker student body, though Gavin and his friends don’t much care for it, and by extension neither does Principal Roy (James Urbaniak). Gonzo is threatened with suspension if he prints another issue, but the students rally around him when he publishes an exposé on the school’s lunch program that causes the kitchen to be shut down by the city health department. However, Gonzo begins believing a bit too much in his own publicity, and when Gavin publishes a story in the Courier that questions Gonzo’s credibility, he responds with a smear piece that leads him to betray the trust of two of his closest friends.
Beware the Gonzo is Bryan Goluboff’s first directorial credit after a long career as a screenwriter, and while the movie’s dialogue is sharp, the narrative’s twists and turns are a bit rough, and Goluboff makes the mistake of depicting his hero as more than a bit smug and hard to like. For all his alleged revolutionary fervor, Ezra Miller’s performance as Gonzo seems more like a weak version of Johnny Depp than a fiery teenage outsider, and frankly he’s too smooth and good looking to make a convincing misfit, even if his best friends are as geeky as Edward Gelbinovich, Griffin Newman, and Stefanie Y. Hong, all of whom are thoroughly convincing as kids on the wrong side of the high-school social stratus. Part of the point of the film is that Gonzo isn’t the sort of hero he likes to imagine himself to be, but the movie has a hard time deciding if Gonzo is a real leader of the outcasts or just a delusional blowhard, and by the end of the film the contest is pretty much at a draw. Zoe Kravitz has charisma to spare as Evie and she’s very beautiful, but she’s not always convincing when she has to deliver the emotional goods as she does before the launching of the last act. And it’s simply disappointing that two actors as strong as Amy Sedaris and Campbell Scott are wasted in such thankless, one-note roles as Gonzo’s parents. Beware the Gonzo seems to work best when it is not trying so hard, particularly in Rob’s exploits with his harem of cast-offs and Judah Friedlander’s scenes as the cafeteria worker all too aware of how lousy his food is. When it plays as a mildly subversive teen comedy, Beware the Gonzo is low-key fun; it’s when the movie decides that it has something to say that Goluboff drops the ball, and seems to handle his responsibilities as director about as well as Gonzo deals with his troubles and those of his friends.