Trying to integrate herself into a close group of slacker friends, high school genius Jane Shipley can’t seem to win with neither her friends nor her passionate for hard work teachers as she has a foot in both contrasting worlds. When peer pressure forces Jane to convince a stern calculus teacher into a re-test her friends had flunked and fails, Jane is forced into another uncomfortable and injustice situation by her friends with exploiting the teacher by turning their meeting into an overstepping of boundaries with a student. The administration, threatened with school board interference, dismisses the teacher that gives the five friends freedom to think they can do whatever they want, including sneaking around school at night and raiding the gym teacher’s liquor stash for some fun. The night not only strains close relationships within the group but also brings a reign of terror when a killer, dressed as the high school sledgehammer-carrying mascot, hunts them down one-by-one.
In her feature film directorial debut, writer-director Lee Ann Kurr hits the ground running with a subgenre all horror fans should be familiar with, the high school slasher. “Student Body” is led by a crew of female filmmakers telling female-driven story about two close, yet very different, best friends with diverging goals about their relationship, touching upon the fluid complexities of growing up and growing apart. Kurr’s classical acting trained background and her music video experience guides Kurr to develop an austere narrative with a sleek contemporary look while expressing relatable themes of school-aged fears, such as never meeting other’s expectations and envy driven intentions. “Student Body” is produced by Rachel Liu, whose comedy romance-horror “Bite Me” is currently on the press release circuit as it releases the same day as “Student Body,” under her Hyberbolic Media production company and Sandra Leviton in her first feature film product credit under her production company, Under the Stairs Entertainment.
In the role of the vacillating Jane Shipley is the Texas born Montse Hernandez. Jane, set sometime after the passing of her mother’s terminal illness, leans solely on her childhood best friend turned the snobbiest and most popular girl in school, Merritt Sinclair, on keeping up her personal upkeep and social connection to others. Played by Cheyenne Haynes, Merritt’s the most equivocal character with trust fund motivations that steer her decisions, gaining reluctant confidence by playing people against each other. Haynes is very tight on Merritt’s conceited and resentful green-eyed behavior that has been stowed away in hopes to keep her image above all else’s whereas Jane wears a few imperfections, and many perfections, on her shoulders. Hesitant in displaying her gifted talents, yet obliviously showy in her unkemptness, Jane submits to Merritt’s whims and plans based off what once was a longtime friendship. Through only a pair of Polaroids and a few lines of dialogue, we’re led to assume at one point in time, pre-high school perhaps, their bond was extremely close but since then, Merritt embroiders herself into high school popularity status that creates a wedge from being authentic to Jane. Hernandez plays well into being the agreeable patsy as she’s coerced throughout the story by not only Merritt but also by her daunting teacher (Christian Camargo, “Penny Dreadful“) with straining persuasion to show off her to intelligence and her other friends, the class clown (Austin Zajur, “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark”), the brutish athletic competitor (Harley Quinn Smith, “Once Upon a Time….in Hollywood”), and the level-headed and confident hunk (Anthony Keyvan). While nothing to flaw with the cast performances, the characters themselves fall into tired tropes of the high school slasher with the token goof, the token jock, token good guy, and token self-centered snob that eats into any of the novelty Kurr attempts to put forth into her film.
“Student Body” is held back in after school detention by the very same stumbling blocks that trip up its banal and flat character body. The one-dimensional narrative hardly strains any effort into the possibility of other outcomes within its formulaic slasher design and even struggles with its own thematic voice of internalized growing pains in angsty youth that usually run the spectrum of emotions. Kurr cradles to cautiously Jane’s development from a smart, weak-minded follower to a smart, self-respecting person by thrusting the leading principal, who’s unable to bloom being stuck in tug-a-war limbo, into a do or die situation, hinging her growth solely on the masked killer to draw it out with a murderous spree that’s a metaphorical kick in the pants to unravel an undercurrent of problems. In other shades, the killer represents Jane’s subconscious desires for growth and confidence, eliminating the suppressing influences that serve as a roadblock against her ability to move forward and flourish naturally without social consequences and setbacks. The problem that plagues “Student Body’ boils simply down to fine tuning themes, especially revolving around sacrifice, as well as rounding the jagged edges of backstories and the hammering of disrespectful teenager’s heads to be not terribly black and white for Jane’s extrication into maturity.
When we use to get bad grades in school, the typical automatic response from most of us, usually in our heads, was the self-punitive expression, our parents are going to kill us! In Lee Ann Kurr’s “Student Body,” receiving a F can literally be deadly as the slasher arrives onto digital platforms today, February 8th. The independent film distributor 1091 Pictures, the company behind the releases of “What We Do in the Shadows,” “Verotika,” and “10 Minutes to Midnight,” distributes the film for purchase and rent on Apple TV and Amazon’s Prime Video. Since the release will be digital, the audio and video aspects will not be covered in this review; however, Luka Bazeli’s hard lit cinematography often times feels very soft while also commanding the space, providing a rich depth, especially in more confined hallway scenes, with a longer lens on the ARRI camera that encroach upon a constant sense of dread. Alex Liberatore’s score offers a low-toned and pulsating centric theme that sticks tension into you like a knife alongside a complimentary string instrument accompaniment piece in the overwrought buildup. There’s a bit of teen synthpop-rock to bring you down. If you’re looking for bonus scenes, in or after credits, there are none. “Student Body” has strong and arduous performances from Montse Hernandez, Cheyenne Haynes, Christian Camargo and among the others, but sleeps on its own message of growth and has a soporific slasher surface under its sleek cinematography and diverse soundtrack.