Rian Johnson's debut feature, "Brick," won the Special Jury Prize for originality of vision at the Sundance Film Festival in 2005, but its description -- a noir mystery set in a California high school -- didn't grab me at all. The prize, it turns out, is as apt as the description is limited. Johnson has taken a well-worn, much-revised genre, adapted to what's become a cliched setting and transcended both in the process. "Brick" is as difficult to categorize as its hard-boiled, made-up lingo is hard to understand -- neither of which should deter anyone from seeing it. It's rare to see a debut as witty and assured as this.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, remarkable in "Mysterious Skin," plays Brendan, a brooding high school loner mourning the loss of his girlfriend. Emily (Emilie de Ravin) abandoned him to run with the popular kids -- known as "the upper crust" -- and soon found herself embroiled in a shady drug deal. She disappears, then mysteriously contacts Brendan asking for help. Before he can find her, Emily turns up dead.
Here, the sleuthing kicks into gear, as Brendan recruits his friend the Brain (Matt O'Leary) to help him get to the bottom of a tangled web of subterfuge and shifting allegiances. At the top are two dark \o7femmes fatales\f7, the football star-dating rich girl Laura (Nora Zehetner) and the poisonous drama queen -- and Brendan's former girlfriend -- Kara (Meagan Good). From there, it's a short trip to various other shady underworlds -- the jocks, the stoners, and a mysterious local drug dealer and his posse of murderous thugs; as well as to a hilarious detente with assistant vice principal Trueman (Richard Roundtree), who's willing to cut deals in exchange for a culprit.
"Heathers," naturally, comes to mind -- but "Brick" forgoes over-the-top satire and deadpan acting for a sly knowingness and genuine, if seriously understated, emotion. The memory of Christian Slater's oily smarm is all but obliterated by Gordon-Levitt, one of the most appealing young actors to emerge in recent years. As he did in Gregg Araki's wonderful "Mysterious Skin," the actor radiates intelligence and sensitivity that's at once dreamy and firmly grounded in hard reality.
Also notable are Lukas Haas as 26-year-old ("really old") the Pin (short for "kingpin"), a local drug lord with Godfatherly pretensions; Noah Fleiss as Tugger, the Pin's hotheaded muscle, and Noah Segan as the tragic stoner dude Dode.
Set in the idyllic seaside community of San Clemente, "Brick" interacts with its milieu in witty, surprising ways. It grounds itself in the realities of teenage life -- the Pin's mom, for example, is wont to cluelessly serve his roughed-up victims juice and cornflakes -- and just as unexpectedly spins off into surrealistic tragedy reminiscent of early Gus Van Sant.
MPAA rating: R for violent and drug content
A Focus Features release. Writer-director-editor Rian Johnson. Producers Ram Bergman, Mark G. Mathis. Director of photography Steve Yedlin.
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.
Exclusively at ArcLight, 6360 W Sunset Blvd. (at Ivar Avenue); (323) 464-4226.