"Class Rank" Opens Festival with Humor and Heart



Laughter filled the hall of the Sarasota Opera House on Friday so often that audiences for director Eric Stoltz’s Class Rank missed numerous lines of dialogue that followed one-liners in the high school comedy. The take on the hopeful activism of American teenagers will screen at theaters nationwide starting May 11, but filmmakers brought the pleasing 

The film tells the tale of teenage School Board candidate Bernard and his enthusiastic campaign manager Veronica, played respectively by Slyler Gisondo and Olivia Holt. Stoltz told SRQ he felt drawn to the script by the characters’ awkwardness and eagerness. The characters fill archetypical roles—Bernard could be seen as a civically minded Lewis from Revenge of the Nerds with Veronica a version of Election’s Tracy Flick with an eye on the Supreme Court—yet they follow an atypical story arc, not so much evolving as characters as they expand their ambitions to include such pedestrian concepts as personal happiness.

Bruce Dern, playing Bernard’s reclusive grandfather, steals scenes with wry humor with a sense of anger laying behind every wise crack, while Kristin Chenoweth plays the surprisingly wise motherto Veronica.

The film hits theaters at a time when a group of real-life Florida teenagers seize American political dialogue, but Stoltz shies from comparisons. His movie follows high school students unhappy with the use of class rank and the insistence on including French in the foreign language curriculum, not the heavy issues around gun violence that drew Parkland students into national notoriety. But Stoltz still hopes his film might inspire action in youth. “Perhaps the teenagers and younger kids who see it will feel something, and say the adults have screwed this up long enough,” Stoltz tells SRQ.

The director also laments how comic book films have taken over the box office. Of course, a high school rom-com doesn’t exactly shake up the language of mass cinema. The movie also can employ superficial laughs to cover less-than-authentic plot devices, including the policy issue name-dropped in the film’s title. I’m uncertain of any schools that keeps the class rank of its top students in a graduating class secret, but believing momentarily that a school would proves essential to feeling anything at this film’s emotional climax.

All that said, few seemed to leave this film disappointed, and there’s something to be said for kicking off a week of challenging cinema with a movie everyone in a diverse audience of cinephiles can enjoy.

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