Tanner Hall - Amy Ferguson, Brie Larson, Rooney Mara and Georgia King
Lucasta (Amy Ferguson), Kate (Brie Larson), Fernanda (Rooney Mara) and Victoria (Georgia King) © 2011 Anchor Bay Films

Tanner Hall is an unconvincing coming-of-age teen melodrama burdened by some crass and very out-of-place attempts at sexual humor by a couple of completely extraneous supporting players. What makes the movie notable is the presence of future Girl With the Dragon Tattoo Rooney Mara in her leading-role feature debut. (Although Tanner Hall is being released this month, it was shot in 2007, long before Mara’s most visible role as Mark Zuckerberg’s exasperated ex-girlfriend in 2010’s The Social Network.)

Mara’s centered, no histrionics cool makes her stand out like a shining jewel in this nothing-special setting. Her performance is so believable, understated and assured it’s frustrating that the rest of the movie isn’t on her level.

Mara plays Fernanda, a thoughtful and quiet high-school senior whose longtime frenemy Victoria (Georgia King) is determined to exclude her, get her in trouble and generally make her unhappy. Fernanda’s roommates are the teasingly flirtatious Kate (Brie Larson) and the slightly sapphic Lucasta (Amy Ferguson).

Tanner Hall - Rooney Mara and Tom Everett Scott
Fernanda (Rooney Mara) and Gio (Tom Everett Scott) © 2011 Anchor Bay Films

Gio (Tom Everett Scott), the dissatisfied husband of one of Fernanda’s mother’s friends, picks Fernanda up at school one weekend for a trip into town. He’s instantly smitten with the strikingly beautiful student, who looks so irresistible in pigtail braids and skintight jeans that the possibility of jail and divorce — not to mention the reality of his wife’s late-term pregnancy — seem like trivial concerns. The symbolism of Gio teaching the inexperienced ingenue how to drive a stick shift is about as subtle as when he hands her an apple and she takes a big bite.

Set somewhere in the pre-internet age of vinyl records, four-wheel roller skates and Tab in glass bottles, the Tanner Hall boarding school is the kind of place that imprisons students behind locked doors at night but has an “In Case of Emergency” master key that Victoria steals. The girls break curfew by sneaking out to a harvest festival that includes an unlikely display of caskets among the carnival rides. That’s the movie’s convenient way of enabling the secretly self-loathing Victoria to muse meaningfully about which one of them most suits her.

The screenplay by co-directors Tatiana von Furstenberg (daughter of designer Diane von Furstenberg) and Francesca Gregorini can’t make up its mind whether it wants to be a St Trinian’s-style romp or a CW-variety soap opera. An early scene in which Kate fakes an injury in the shower so she can taunt uptight English teacher Mr Middlewood (Chris Kattan) with her towel-clad body is like an outtake from the Porky’s era. But there’s nothing funny about the public humiliation Victoria receives from her alcoholic mother, or the uncomfortable affair between Gio and the mostly level-headed but too easily lovestruck Fernanda.

The worst would-be humorous moments take place between Mr Middlewood and his aggressively horny wife (Amy Sedaris), who act out their incompatibility issues with all the dramatic subtlety of The Ropers. Deleting those smutty and broadly overplayed scenes wouldn’t be enough to save the movie, but at least its storyline wouldn’t have seemed so bizarrely inconsistent without those embarrassing diversions.

[Rating:2.5 stars]

This film opens Friday September 9 2011


James Dawson

Jim is Film Review Online's Los Angeles based reviewer.