Sunday, June 9, 2013

Heartbreak, Elation And Heartbreak, Highland Park Might Belabor Itself, But It Works!

The Good: Decent acting, Engaging plot progression/pacing, Interesting characters
The Bad: Painfully obvious plot conceit.
The Basics: When a group of teachers think they have won the lottery, their lives change and they work to change the run-down community in which they live.

As Summer Blockbuster Season gets into full swing, we have a rare phenomenon. This weekend, there are no major films hitting theaters, so I am devoting some time and attention to art films and smaller releases. Today, that takes the form of Highland Park. Highland Park continues the trend in movies that exploded last year during Oscar Pandering Season where teachers work to reform their communities. Far more like Here Comes The Boom (reviewed here!) than Won’t Back Down (reviewed here!), Highland Park is a dramedy with a conceit that writes the plot, as opposed to characters who move the story.

Highland Park has a very simple plot that creates a story that has a built-in conflict that works around waiting for the metaphorical shoe to drop. This is a lotto pool story where teachers (and a principal and maintenance worker) put all their hopes on winning the Mega prize lottery drawing in order to stop their community’s backslide into poverty. But the film sets up an explosion when it makes it obvious that the person who was responsible for buying the lotto ticket abandoned the numbers and went with different numbers. So, a full third or half of the film is spent waiting for the revelation that the people counting on the millions they think they won is now coming.

Opening in the Detroit suburb of Highland Park where the city’s infrastructure is crumbling and the mayor is destroying more than she is building, the principal of the high school gets together each week decides he is out of the school Mega Millions lottery pool. After ten years of playing the same numbers, Principal Lloyd Howard is disillusioned and he finds himself working not to tell his teachers and support staff that they are all about to lose their jobs. When it comes out that he has had to cut jobs and programs, Howard finds himself as the bearer of bad news and a pariah in the community. When Ed, the school’s retired maintenance worker who continues to work on the furnaces and is part of the lotto pool goes out of town, he has an epiphany about the group’s luck.

But when the school lotto pool’s numbers are called after ten years of playing them, Lloyd Howard suddenly finds his life turned around. He and the other members of the betting pool begin making big purchases and revitalizing the local economy. Pushing for grant money and using resources based on the promise of the winnings. He gets into a game of one-upsmanship in with Mayor Shirley Paine on spending private and public funds to revitalize Highland Park. When Ed returns from his time in the woods and reveals to the others that he bought tickets with different numbers, everyone turns against him, though Howard is more understanding. He then has to go up against Paine without any resources and suffers her wrath when she turns the media against him.

Highland Park might have an obvious conceit, but it feels fresh for the most part. The film goes through a bit of a lull in the middle as the viewer waits for Ed to return and the members of the betting pool spend money they do not yet have. The film works well at setting up the fall, but it only truly picks up again as the characters spend the last twenty-five minutes reacting to the truth of their situation. In a classic sense, Highland Park is a well-constructed dramedy that contains all the elements to plausibly come together the way it does. This is where character saves Highland Park.

Highland Park may not have the most original plot, but the characters are interesting. Ed, upon realizing that he is at fault for not buying the lotto ticket that everyone planned on, gives a decent speech about how everyone is the same as they were before they thought they won the money, so they are not out anything. This speech could have been a super-cheesy monologue that guts the reality of the film. Instead, it is delivered by Danny Glover’s Ed and he sells the lines with a proficiency that makes it seem more inspired than hokey. Glover makes Ed into an understated hero who is entirely viable and realistic.

The film is led by Billy Burke. Burke is arguably the very best thing to come out of The Twilight Saga (reviewed here!) and in Highland Park he once again proves he has the chops to open a film, even if it is a smaller movie. Burke is entirely believable as Lloyd Howard. His character is painted early on as an idealist and a former troublemaker who has since made good as the beleaguered school principal. Burke has the body language to play the role as if he has been carrying a great weight for a considerable amount of time and when his whole posture changes as his character becomes more assertive, the viewer is convinced easily that it is the character’s rebirth of spirit. Burke does a decent job of alternatively playing crushed and a thinker who can outmaneuver the more experienced Shirley Paine.

Parker Posey give the viewer nothing new as Paine, but she plays the part well-enough that she could credibly have risen to be the mayor of the crumbling city. John Carroll Lynch and Blake Clark have good supporting roles, but they are well within their established ranges. Rockmond Dunbar steals his scenes as Shaun, one of the teachers who has less pragmatic goals for the money they think they won. Dunbar has great screen presence and his dynamic presentation of Shaun makes the relatively minor character seem very vital.

Like the other movies in the same genre, Highland Park is unlikely to light the world ablaze and it will be entirely overlooked come award season. But, it is a fun movie that makes for wonderful counter-programming the usual to mindless summer fare.

For other works with Michelle Forbes, please visit my reviews of:
True Blood - Season 2
Lost - Season 4
Homicide: The Movie
Homicide: Life On The Street - Season Six
Homicide: Life On The Street - Season Five
"Preemptive Strike" - Star Trek: The Next Generation
Star Trek: The Next Generation - Season 6
Star Trek: The Next Generation - Season 5


For other television reviews, be sure to visit my Television Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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