“Gosh Pacey, maybe I don’t think you can Dawson can pull it off.” For a minute, Francesca (Scarlett Johansson) lets slip an uncanny comprehension of context. The movie she’s in — The Perfect Score — recycles familiar high school stories, from Breakfast Club to Dawson’s Creek, in particular the sort where a motley ensemble comes together under duress. Here, Francesca is responding to fellow seniors Kyle (Chris Evans) and Matty (Bryan Greenberg), who have asked her for help in stealing the answers to the SAT, to be administered on Saturday. This because she happens to be the beautiful and disaffected daughter of the man who owns ETS (Educational Testing Service) in Princeton, where they all happen to reside, and thus has all kinds of access.
Yes, she resists at first. And yes, she comes around. Also yes, the others involved in the caper have their own motives for doing the wrong thing. Aspiring architect Kyle wants to get into Cornell, Matty wants to make it to University of Maryland where his offscreen girlfriend is already enrolled and apparently cheating on hi. Straight-A girlie Anna (Erika Christensen) freezes on tests, basketball star Desmond (Darius Miles) needs to make a minimum score to get his scholarship, and stoner Roy (Leonardo Nam) overhears Pacey and Dawson scheming in the boys’ room.
Unsurprisingly, each kid learns a special lesson. Equally unsurprisingly, said lessons involve hookups for the chosen few, namely, the white kids. Until she meets the blandly handsome Kyle, Anna is an overachiever who submits to her stuffy parents’ desires (she’s headed for Brown, she’s ranked second in her class) even as she also pursues her own interests, sort of: she’s yearbook photographer, which lands her conveniently at the basketball game, shooting pictures as Des is shooting hoops, and so also conveniently makes an associate of his, if not exactly a friend. The poor girl hasn’t experienced what passes for “normal” activity in high school movies, that is, as she puts it, she hasn’t “broken curfew” or “made out on a rooftop.” That she gets to do both when she participates in the elaborate key-stealing plot liberates her, of course, to the point that she impresses the elaborately freethinking Francesca the next day as resembling a “slut” — girl power, yeah!
Just so, Francesca is a tough-seeming bright girl whose rage at her father (who is serially bedding young women closer to her age than his) inspires her to join in the outlaws (this after, as Matty observes by way of an odd dis, she’s been “folding [her]self up in a web page because daddy doesn’t love [her] enough”). When Kyle and Matty first approach her in the library, the camera swoops up her legs beneath the desk (from no one’s point of view), revealing her strawberry-patterned underpantsed crotch, in order to — I’m guessing here — demonstrate her seductive rebelliousness: she sits like a boy, legs uncrossed. But Francesca’s appeal lies not so much in her pop-punky outfits, however, as in her self-awareness: she knows she’s a cliché, saying, “The poor little rich girl story is a little played out.”
Directed by Brian (Hardball) Robbins, The Perfect Score includes a rudimentary political critique of the U.S. educational and testing system. Well-known concerns are voiced by unsurprising spokespeople: Des calls the SAT racist, Francesca notes its sexism, while Roy adds on that the most successful test-takers are Asians of a certain class background. The point, of course, is that the test doesn’t measure potential so much as it measures willingness to play by a certain set of rules. This in conjunction with a high school sports system that promotes gifted athletes even when they don’t actually complete their class work, along with legacy admissions policies and class biases, add up to good reasons for the kids to fight back.
Such reasons only make the kids likely candidates for ethical rehabilitation, for this movie is not about to condone cheating, no matter how corrupt the institution they’re trailing against. The Perfect Score is, at its heart, the corniest of retreads — the one where the rebels come to respect the broader system after all: they want to go to school, make money, consume product.
To reach this end, the film makes liberal use of stereotypes, from Kyle’s slacker older brother Larry (Matthew Lillard), still living over their parents’ garage, to the bad girlfriend who’s left Matty available, to Des’ ostensibly strict mom (the always excellent and always underused Tyra Ferrell, Doughboy and Ricky’s mom in Boyz N the Hood), who insists that he go to college instead of turning pro. She’s the only adult figure who might be termed “positive,” though she’s also one of the precious few with more than one or two lines to speak. But her interest in her son’s experience seems late; somehow, she’s missed that he hasn’t done his high school class work for four years.
Amid all this formula-mongering, Roy is a little bit of something else. That’s not to say he doesn’t subscribe to stereotypes: he’s a video-gamey geek and wannabe designer, a math whiz who’s lost his mother and is now awkwardly lusty around girls. Calling himself the “Ghost” (“Because I hear things and see things and nobody hears or sees me”), Roy smokes dope incessantly and underachieves on purpose. Smart and smart-mouthed, he’s disposed to heady philosophizing (the SAT isn’t difficult, he asserts, because “These questions all have answers”), and egregious splats of physical humor (falling out of trees).
Like most high school outsiders, the Ghost brings perspective to the rituals his fellow students take so seriously. As the film’s mostly cynical narrator, he remarks their evolving relationships (from a distance) and, when asked about his fondest dreams, imagines an alternate universe where he’s a superhero, part man, part reptile. If only The Perfect Score, so pedestrian and predictable, had spent some time in that universe.