“The SAT did this! The SAT is pimpin’ out my girlfriend!” Poor Matty (Bryan Greenberg). A lifelong underachiever, he’s had this plan in his head, that he and his offscreen girlfriend would attend college together. She’s already enrolled at the university of Maryland, and he’s unable to make the SAT score he needs to get in. She’s also, apparently, cheating on him, hence Matty’s frustration.) As Matty throws his cell phone into the darkness, director Brian Robins notes on the commentary track for Paramount’s new DVD of The Perfect Score, that it was such a “great toss” that it ricocheted back to him.
This brief moment provides a useful way to think about the film: it’s an okay idea and the young actors are solid (especially Scarlett Johansson as Francesca), but it never quite gets where it needs to go. Robbins and screenwriter Mark Schwahn (who apparently did the version of the script that Robbins saw, based on a previous incarnation by Marc Hyman and Jon Zack) observe repeatedly the things that went right for the shoot (and remark on their low budget too). Watching Matty propose his plot-galvanizing idea — to steal the answers to the SATS — with his friend Kyle (Chris Evans), Robbins says, “In cutting the film, in the case of a lot of movies, your first act is too long. And our challenge here was to sort of speed up the first act and get to the meat of the story.”
Two scenes later, and the film is off and running, by way of one of its incisive fantasy scenes, wherein Kyle imagines the rest of his life after he has been unable to “bubble in” correctly (he gleans this phrase from his elementary schoolteacher mother, and Schwahn helpfully notes that teaching children this particular skill, often before anything else, is one of the many unfortunate results of the “teaching for the test” process imposed on elementary schoolteachers). In his voiceover, he describes the “teaching for the test” business as just that, a way for the ETS (Educational Testing Service) to make millions, while kids who don’t pass grow up to be homeless. “I mean, when you get the feeling that everything’s slipping away, that you’re gonna be left behind, desperate times call for desperate measures.”
When Kyle and Matty approach Francesca (beautiful and disaffected daughter of the man who owns ETS in Princeton, where they all happen to reside, and thus has all kinds of access) for help, they’re startled that she doesn’t agree right off, and ask why. “Gosh Pacey,” she says, “maybe I don’t think you can Dawson can pull it off.” Here Francesca lets slip an uncanny comprehension of context, as 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 (Schwahn admits, that when he was a kid, “Those are the movies that spoke to me.”)
Despite her initial resistance, it’s no surprise that she does come around. And the others involved in the caper have their own understandable if wrongheaded motives. Aspiring architect Kyle wants to get into Cornell, Matty wants to make it to UMD. Straight-A girlie Anna (Erika Christensen) freezes on tests (she didn’t fill in one bubble), basketball star Desmond (real NBA player 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 (Robbins insists that he didn’t want to cast a blond surfer guy, because Jeff Spicolli looms so large).
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 also conveniently makes her his acquaintance. As she whines early on, Anna 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 to the point that she impresses freethinking Francesca as a “slut.”
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, “You’re folding yourself up in a web page because daddy doesn’t love you 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, demonstrating her seductive rebelliousness: she sits like a boy, legs uncrossed (Robbins mentions on the commentary track that he was called to Johansson’s trailer to help pick out the underpants — how Pacey-like — as well as the fact that Lost in Translation opens with Scarlett in her underpants, though, he points out, he shot his film first). But Francesca’s appeal lies less in her pop-punky outfits than her self-awareness: she knows she’s a cliché, saying, “The poor little rich girl story is a little played out.”
As Kyle’s bubble-in nightmare indicates, 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 set of rules. This in conjunction with a high school sports system that promotes gifted athletes when they don’t 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, a retread; the rebels come to respect the broader system after all: they want to go to school, make money, consume product. (To its credit, it does make liberal use of fantasy sequences, with Kyle the victim of Mission Impossible-style repelling ninjas, Roy imagining herself licking Anna’s face, and Francesca as Trinity from The Matrix, clever bits that extend beyond the usual high school movie rituals.)
Still, it does use a few too many 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.
Amid all this formula, 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. “Why do you smoke pot?” asks Anna. “Something to do?” he asks back. 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 too seriously. As the film’s mostly cynical narrator, he remarks their evolving relationships 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 had spent some time in that universe.