Rian Johnson's "Brick" is a rare animal, a high school movie with bite, a teen movie with edge and attitude to spare. The film's conceit or gimmick -- contemporary youths who talk like grown-ups in a '40s or '50s detective movie -- provides exactly the spark of originality that will thrill some viewers and leave less convinced audiences annoyed or perplexed.
"Brick" begins with a boy in a drainage ditch staring down at the body of a beautiful blonde (Emilie de Ravin). Who's the dame and who put her in the big sleep? Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is the only junior shamus with the desire to set things right. A disaffected underachiever, Brendan has to break through the stratified high school social scene -- and avoid the attention of the strict assistant principal (Richard Roundtree) -- to get close to a heavy dealer name The Pin (Lukas Haas), who may have the answers he's looking for. Is he getting good advice from the lovely and mysterious Laura (Nora Zehetner) or is she just trying to take him off the scent?
The film's settings are distinctive in their anonymity. "Brick" is set somewhere in Southern California, but most of the action takes place in abandoned parking lots, suburban basements and the dark corners of a high school far away from any classrooms. The matter-of-fact simplicity of the production design and cinematography enhance the normalcy of having these kids talking in this heightened gangster patois that would sound more natural coming from the lips of Bogart and Bacall than Gordon-Levitt and Zehetner.
Is Johnson's ear for the Hammett-esque patois perfect? Hardly. There are some sequences that sound like a high school production of a David Mamet play and many of the supporting players struggle with the peculiar verbal rhythms and mangle chunks of expositional prose. But the idea of listening to an English-language film and understanding only bits and pieces won't be foreign for fans for Mike Leigh or Ken Loach.
When he's asked to deliver lengthy speeches, Gordon-Levitt's attention sometimes wanders, as if he's playing the words, rather than their meaning. Whenever he interacts with other characters, though, his performance becomes tough and assertive. The buzz that comes from Gordon-Levitt's scenes with Zehetner or Haas or Matt O'Leary as a fellow outcast dubbed The Brain is that of watching a young actor in absolute control of some challenging material. The physicality of the part -- Brendan isn't strong, but he's scrappy and willing to get hurt -- comes from the star's movement and body language. "Brick" is more proof that the "Mysterious Skin" actor is ready to step up as a major performer.
Zehetner, Haas and De Ravin add to the film's effectiveness by looking natural in their parts, playing the femme fatale, heavy and not-so-innocent victim like organic characters rather than as grown-up film noir archetypes pretending to be kids.
"Brick" comes off like a great episode of "Veronica Mars" or like a badass installment of "Encyclopedia Brown." Those descriptions ought to make it clear that "Brick" is an acquired taste, but those who like the flavor will get to enjoy one of the year's most intriguing cinematic surprises thus far.