On Boarding School, passed-down trauma, and Boaz Yakin's clumsy swings at existential-historical profundity
Boarding School Momentum Pictures
Director: Boaz Yakin
Screenplay: Boaz Yakin
Starring: Luke Prael, Sterling Jerins, Will Patton, Tammy Blanchard, Nicholas J. Oliveri, Christopher Dylan Wright, Samantha Mathis and David Aaron Baker
Rated R / 1 hour, 51 minutes / 1.78:1
Limited release / VOD
(out of four)
I have no idea what the Holocaust has to do with the thorny familial relationships of rich 21st Century New Yorkers. I don't think Boaz Yakin knows, either. But that hasn't stopped him from making movies associating one with the other.
With 2008's Death in Love and his newest effort Boarding School (both of which he directed from his own original scripts), he has attempted to make a case about very specific forms of survived trauma - namely: transactional sex/rape with Nazis during the Third Reich - reverberating through generations, leaving legacies of sexual guilt and psychological violence and inscrutable neurosis. In neither film has Yakin actually demonstrated the link itself; there's no connective tissue except for the fact that he keeps telling us these things are connected.
Death in Love incoherently tried to tie the existential anxieties of two brothers - one an unscrupulous lothario prone to masturbatory pseudo-philosophical ramblings; the other a quiet, reclusive bundle of crippling sensitivities - to their mother's concentration-camp relationship with a Nazi doctor 50 years earlier. Its tagline - "Sin. Suffer. Repeat." - was a narrow (if obvious) variation of one basic thematic angle, but the film itself couldn't achieve even that bare minimum of coherence. In Boarding School, Yakin has graduated to the barely-coherent, this time linking a 13-year-old boy's experience in an isolated academy for troubled teens with his late grandmother's days spent in hiding during World War II, in particular the systematic rape and abuse at the hands of a Nazi soldier and the violent means required to survive it. In this case, dreams and apparitions* tie the two stories together, albeit for no particular reason. Unless the reason for such a spiritual connection between the two characters is to create a more concrete thematic bridge. It makes for a somewhat smoother expression of Yakin's confused ideas than Death offered, but neither film figures out how to articulate whatever it is the filmmaker - who clearly has a deep personal connection to the material - is attempting to wrestle with, or trying to say.
* He also gets caught wearing his dead grandmother's dress and makeup, which seems to be the specific impetus for his banishment to the mysterious boarding school.
However sincere the artistic intentions, the Holocaust is too loaded a subject to be casually juxtaposed with the contemporary ennui of the rich and privileged. It amounts to an aggrandization of its modern characters, which in context comes across as either silly or tasteless (if not both), nearly making them into tragic figures of their own - an equivalency I'm sure Yakin did not intend. But nonetheless.
The most unconscionable of historic events is essentially used to explain away - or even, in a small sense, romanticize (with Death in Love in particular) - the comparably ordinary hardships of a 40-year-old skirt-chaser facing the hollowness of his existence or, in the case of Boarding School, a 13-year-old kid enduring the awfulness of being 13 years old. (Also night terrors.)
At least in this movie there's a pulpy horror element that genuinely endangers our protagonist. It may be, like Death, a crass attempt to manufacture profound meaning out of an otherwise traditional narrative, but at least this time Yakin is able to distract himself with familiarities like a mysterious setting, an evil teacher/headmaster, an unexplained death, a possibly psychotic love interest. The genre elements occasionally save the film from itself. (Incidentally, it arrives on the heels of two other movies about "troubled" or otherwise disapproved-of teens being sent to special schools, after the supernatural-horror Down a Dark Hall and the YA adaptation The Miseducation of Cameron Post, both of which overlap with Boarding School in myriad ways.)
In fairness to Yakin's thematic/symbolic experiment(s), there could be an easy temptation to over-literalize the connection he's trying to make - the specific ways the Holocaust experiences affect or trickle down these two families' bloodlines. I can imagine similarly themed movies trying to ham-fistedly invent tidy symbolic parallels. So I give Yakin credit for trying to take on the subject matter in the form of messy abstractions and intangible psychological impulses rather than more simplistically defined answers. It's just that he never finds what he's looking for, and so his very conceit dies on the vine. No doubt there are filmmakers who could express what he's trying to express without his form of explication and plotting, but it would have to be someone who could float along vague psychological currents and forge visual and sonic connections rather than the more traditional means Yakin has in his arsenal.
Further hurting Boarding School is the limitations of its lead actor, Luke Prael (who was much better in a less-demanding, but nonetheless important, role in this summer's Eighth Grade). His efficacy largely comes down to a distinctive look - with his sharp brow, longish dark hair brushed to the side, and resting edgelord face, you could easily imagine him in something like The Outsiders or The Lost Boys - but he delivers much of his dialogue as if he doesn't understand the meaning of the words. It's like he's reading off cue cards. That his frequent on-screen partner, Sterling Jerins, is such a natural performer only makes Prael's mechanical line readings more conspicuous.
Jerins' Christine is half-ally, half-adversary for Prael's Jacob, flirting with him and then threatening him within the length of a breath, and with equal ease. She matter-of-factly claims to have murdered her brother and driven her mother to suicide, and is thus unsurprised to find herself sent off to be disciplined in the name of God. The man doing the disciplining is Dr. Sherman (Will Patton), who's as humorless as he is ideologically strict. Most of the other pupils have one obvious affliction or another - one has Tourette's, another is somewhere on the autism spectrum, another has burns all over his face and body. Jacob is a naturally nurturing type, so he carves out a place among this small community rather quickly. He's certainly more sensitive to his new classmates' needs than either Dr. Sherman or Mrs. Sherman (Tammy Blanchard).
When the school's inevitable hidden intentions finally come to the surface, there's a really nice extended sequence - not coincidentally, it's when the film is leaning heaviest into pulp instead of its more high-minded ambitions - that comes to life thanks to a vivid, almost Bava-esque lighting scheme that nearly makes up for the rest of the film's ugly, grey, digital palette. Where the narrative seemingly decides to go is equally surprising. And then, it doesn't. If you're going to go that far broaching a certain narrative path, you better follow through. Boarding School can't. As if it's afraid of the uncomfortable implications of where it's led itself. At that point it has no one to blame but itself - the film put itself in that position. And it's left with the choice of either embracing it, or idiotically staging an implausible way out of it. Yakin chooses poorly.