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Non-Review Review: Struck by Lightning

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2013.

The best thing that Struck by Lightning has going for it is Chris Colfer. As a young writer, Colfer’s script is bristling with all manner of acerbic remarks, bitter humour and overdrawn melodrama. The basic ingredients for any half-decent teenage film, to be frank. However, the worst thing that Struck by Lightning has going for it is also Chris Colfer. A better writer than an actor, Colfer finds himself struggling to convince us that his protagonist is worth our time, and finds himself unable to soften the rough edges of his leading character. The result is a film that is quite sharp and well-observed, but which never quite tempers itself properly.

Get the lead out...

Get the lead out…

There’s a strong sense of condescension running through the heart of Struck by Lightning. Colfer plays the gifted and inspired teenager Carson Phillips, a kid with aspirations that he might one day become the youngest editor of The New Yorker. However, he is surrounded by people – both teenagers and adults – who don’t share his drive or ambition and fail to recognise his considerable talents. So Carson finds himself relegated to the sidelines, making snide comments and passive-aggressively sniping at his fellow students.

Being frank, Struck by Lightning needs one hell of a charming leading man. The script is incredibly bitter as it mocks those inept and unmotivated individuals who surround Carson, the speed bumps on his chosen career path. Dealing with a prescription-drug-addicted mother, a deadbeat lying father and a career guidance teacher more concerned about earning a giant slurpy cup, Carson doesn’t just come across at the only sane man. At times, it seems like he’s the only character with two brain cells to rub together, the only character who isn’t dead or dying inside.

A lot of baggage...

A lot of baggage…

The script is witty and sharp, and it occasionally draws a fair amount of blood. After all, the standard teenage film is all about how the world fails to understand the protagonist, tapping into that most universal of teenage anxieties. Colfer has simply recognised that and turned the volume up to eleven in his script. It isn’t just that those people around Carson are unwilling to engage with him, the script sarcastically suggests that they simply aren’t able to work to his level.

There’s a very obvious danger to this, especially when the film’s tone tries to remain light and bubbly. Colfer the actor simply can’t keep pace with Colfer the writer. Putting it quite frankly, we need to like Carson in order to completely engage with his story. While the script demonstrates that Carson is a uniquely talented individual, he also seems snide and arrogant and condescending. The movie never really calls him on these character flaws, and instead requires that we just roll with it. When Carson starts gleefully manipulating those around him to secure a place a prestigious college, we need to be entirely on his side. We need to engage with Carson for the move to work.

Chris-crossed...

Chris-crossed…

Chris Colfer doesn’t quite have that charisma. He doesn’t have the charm to temper the arrogance in the character as written, or to exude the warmth that we need to see. We never doubt that Carson holds his small town (and most of its inhabitants) in nothing short of contempt, which is somewhat frustrating. The town is inhabited by failures and wrecks, but it’s hard not to pity characters like Carson’s mother, even as she tries to force Carson to take ADHD medication.

Indeed, somewhat awkwardly, the closest the movie comes to humanising those students standing against Carson comes with a confession that they somehow lack his ability or intelligence. It’s a moment that seems to mean well, in that it’s an attempt to give voice to a perspective beyond Carson’s point of view, but it’s also ill-advised. It simple makes Carson seem even more disconnected and arrogant, and Colfer can’t quite humanise the character as he appears in the script.

Thunderstruck...

Thunderstruck…

To be fair, the film is witty enough that it can work through this fairly significant problem. Struck by Lightning works best when it channels the classic teen comedies of yester-year, seeming like an affectionate throwback to the eighties’ peak of adolescent coming-of-age comedies. There are any number of nice gags, and the film makes a point to surround Colfer with a collection of more skilled performers who give the film a bit more texture and depth. Ironically, given so much of the cast is positioned opposing Carson, this only serves to undermine Carson further.

Alison Janney, for example, turns Carson’s mother into an almost sympathetic failure of a human being. The script portrays her as the root of Carson’s dysfunction, and she does any number of unforgivable things over the course of the film. However, Janney manages to flesh out the character and to find a very human core, making Carson’s neglectful and dysfunctional mother seem much more engaging and sympathetic than Carson himself.

Getting creative (writing)...

Getting creative (writing)…

Still, Struck by Lightning is a sharp script executed quite well. The supporting cast can’t quite compensate for Colfer’s weaknesses as a lead actor, but the film still feels like an affectionate throwback to a classic genre.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 3

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