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Idealistic 15-year old Owen gets the chance of a lifetime to be the youth spokesman for U.S. Senate Candidate Lawrence Connor, only to be exploited in a fierce campaign of TV and radio ads, posters, interviews, and speaking engagements in the cut throat media-image-is-all world of American politics. Written by
Mediocre: not without interest, but ultimately disappointing
Leaving the theater, my movie-going companion remarked: "It didn't go far enough." I see where he's coming from, but I would summarize a little differently. "Choose Connor" falls into an uncomfortable valley right between going too far and not going far enough.
It purports to tell the story of a bright teenager's fall from innocence, as he gets swept up in the Senate campaign of a local politician, only to discover that the nuts and bolts of our electoral system, and the true character of the candidate himself, don't conform to his young idealism. Rich material, to be sure, with great potential.
Unfortunately, the film falls down on a number of fronts. Primarily, the writer/director doesn't know whether he's making a gritty, true-to-life exposé, or a wild-eyed melodrama.
At times, the script is tight and smart, as in the scene where the teenager is being prepped by the candidate's campaign manager, and is steered away from talking about (or even asking about) specific policy details. In these moments, we believe the characters, and that the situation develops as it might in reality.
At other times, though, the script reaches for shock, as we learn about the traumas of another teen character, a family member of the candidate who carries terrible secrets. In these moments, we don't believe the situation for an instant; the screenwriter is clearly recycling trashy details from other stories (both political thrillers and family dramas), and gives no sense of actual experience in these matters. We simply don't buy it: this isn't how things like this would actually happen.
That kind of lurid excess would be fine, if the rest of the movie were constructed with the same tone. But it's directly at odds with the low-key naturalism of other scenes, which are handled and played with subtlety (e.g., the candidate's offer of assistance in the teenager's father's career). The result is a movie that veers wildly between contradictory elements, until our suspension of disbelief has been whiplashed into oblivion.
This is too bad, because the film wastes a strong performance by Steven Weber as the candidate; he's suitably charming, oily, and slippery, and is convincing as a man with a dark background who has discovered a route to personal safety through deceptive pursuit of power. There's a chilling scene late in the film, showing the candidate fighting tears and appealing for understanding from the teenager across the back seat of the candidate's car, that communicates very plausibly how this kind of manipulative operator might work on a vulnerable target. Sadly, the strong work of Weber and the rest of the cast is lost amid the unbelievable gyrations of the script.
Even worse, the intermittent potential of the script is further quashed by flat direction. Luke Eberl, both writer and director, does himself no favors in the handling of his own script. Lighting and camera-work are dully tedious; visually, the piece looks like a TV movie from the mid-90s. Character blocking is similarly uninspired, with scene after scene lacking necessary vigor. The story takes place in the final weeks of a campaign for U.S. Senate, which should be a whirlwind of activity and background conflict, and yet we watch people floating idly through their speeches and settings as if nothing of importance is at stake. The script needed one more round of firm-handed polish, but even as it stands, its flaws might have been easier to overlook if a better director had established a more appropriately energetic setting and asked the cast to put the emotional accelerator on the floor.
The movie's also unnecessarily coy about its details. The candidate is never identified as belonging to any political party, the specific state whose Senate seat is being contested is not named, and even a couple of clear references to the Iraq debate are cloaked behind the cheesy name of an obviously made-up country. This was probably justified, production-wise, as an attempt to get past partisan specifics and shoot for universality, but it's pretty easy to see past that rationalization and to the creative cowardice of which those choices are symptomatic. A stronger filmmaker would have recognized that universality is achieved through convincing detail, not through maddening vagueness.
The overall feeling of "Choose Connor" is disappointment: a bright, very ambitious filmmaker has reached for significance and import, and we see that he's just not yet capable of pulling it off. He's young and inexperienced, and he's working on material and themes that are simply beyond him. the result is a movie that doesn't know when to pull its melodramatic punches, and simultaneously fails to land critical blows (or doesn't even throw them). It'll be interesting to see how this young filmmaker develops, but there's a great risk that the hubristic overreaching of this project will torpedo his later efforts, and one wonders whether he should have set his sights on a more reasonable goal.
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