A Negative Charge, by Tyler Smith
One of the most important elements of writing is the ability to discriminate; to determine what belongs in a written piece and what doesn’t. This is no different with film criticism. When discussing a film, one must pick out key pieces of information and opinion and expound upon those, rather than try to include every thought one has. I’ve come to understand this and realize that it would simply be bad writing to incorporate every single problem that I had with Brian Dannelly’s Struck by Lightning into my review. But, Lord, how I want to. I want everybody to know every seemingly insignificant detail about how awful this film is. I want to shout it from the rooftops. I usually try to give a movie the benefit of the doubt, sparing the artist from my harshest criticism and saving my true vitriol for studio calculation. However, if it were possible to murder a movie, I would stab Struck by Lightning right through its smug, superior, condescending, misanthropic heart.
This is one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen.
As the film starts, we see a young man named Carson Phillips sitting quietly alone at school before he finally walks to his car and is indeed struck by lightning and killed. The film then rewinds a few weeks so we can see just who this unfortunate kid was. And, boy, do we! We see his hateful, sarcastic attitude towards his fellow students. We see his self righteous posturing towards his teachers. We see his wounded, entitled insults towards his parents. Oh, yes, we get a very good sense of just who Carson is.
Played by Glee‘s Chris Colfer, Carson is everything that we desperately wish we could forget we used to be in high school. We thought we knew it all. We knew better than our peers and certainly better than our elders. We had it all figured out. Then, of course, we grew older, experienced life, and realized that we’re really no better than anybody else. And we think back on the stupid kids we were and shake our heads, hoping- praying- that we have changed.
And, indeed, Carson’s insufferable attitude would be perfectly fine, if he eventually came to the realization that, though he feels like he is an misunderstood- and, in fact, may well be- he doesn’t have the right to treat others like garbage. Such a realization would qualify as a genuine character arc and render his previous actions more acceptable. As it is, Carson never has that moment. In his mind, everybody in his little podunk, mid-Western town lacks the vision and drive to get out and move to more important places like New York or Los Angeles. The idea that some of the small town inhabitants might actually want to live there is never entertained. Carson wants to leave and, thus, everybody else should want to leave. And, if they don’t, they are simply wrong and don’t deserve basic human civility. In fact, they deserve nothing but insults and derision.
And Carson is only too happy to oblige.
At one point in the film, Carson addresses his classmates as “future farmers and inmates,” before going on to speculate publicly whether or not they can read or write. He judges people for their beliefs, their lifestyles, and their ambitions. He lectures people about Creationism, conservatism, the “true story” about the founding of America, and the over-medication of kids. Over the course of the film, he eventually blackmails various students into writing for his literary magazine, which he needs to publish in order to get the attention of the various writing programs and magazines that he aspires to be a part of.
One could make the argument that these are the actions of a sociopath. Other people’s feelings and desires don’t matter to Carson. People are either a help or a hindrance to him achieving his goals. Other people’s goals are not merely secondary; they’re non-existant. As such, he can treat people however he likes. Whatever it takes to get what he wants, that’s what he’ll do.
And throughout it all, Carson has the audacity to feel justified in his behavior. He feels like he is the put-upon outcast of his community. He feels misunderstood to such a degree that, when he starts putting together his blackmail scheme, it is treated as a fun revenge plan. He is finally going to get back at these people for their crimes. But, what exactly are their crimes? As far as I can tell, the worst sin that they commit is not being Carson Phillips. They are different people with different beliefs and different personalities and so they must pay!
This is not the first time we’ve seen this behavior in film. Tracy Flick in Election and Max Fischer in Rushmore are both ambitious narcissists that won’t let anybody get in their way. However, by the end of those two films, it is made clear that this behavior is not condoned. Tracy may get her way in the end, but the film is clearly not happy about it. And Max actually gets to the point when he realizes the error of his ways, to such an extent that he even attempts to reconcile with his former enemies.
Struck by Lightning has none of this. The film has bought into the cult of Carson and it is in for the long haul. And so Carson is never held accountable, either by the actions of other characters or the general tone of the film. So, by the time Carson takes the fateful walk to his car, he is treated as some sort of martyr too pure for this world. He was taken too soon and we can all sort of learn from him. And, sure enough, we get the obligatory shots of those left behind- those poor abused souls that Carson had nothing but disdain for- aspiring to be more like him and not settle for this hellish small town life. They’re going to do something with themselves, dammit! Just like Carson would have wanted!
The film’s total lack of perspective can probably be traced back to its screenplay, which was written by Chris Colfer. Now, I have no idea what Colfer is like in real life. He might be a really nice guy, and it’s likely that he is mature for his age. However, the script reads very much like it was written by any other high school student, eager to be the misunderstood hero of their own story and demonize those that refuse to give in to their every whim. Many of us wrote stuff like that in high school. Maybe it was poetry. Perhaps a play. And, for those of us that love movies, quite possibly a screenplay. It is important, I think, for young people to learn to express themselves through art, if for no other reason than to figure out whether or not they like it.
The key difference between the self indulgent art pieces that most high schoolers create and Struck by Lightning is that those pieces are not produced. And it is likely best for everybody involved that they are not. Because in a few years, it’s entirely possible that Chris Colfer will look back on his script and realize that he condoned- even championed- behavior that is socially destructive. It is a kind of bullying that is based not on feelings of inferiority, but on the assumption of superiority; the idea that these sheep simply don’t deserve to be treated well. And, with any luck, the more mature Colfer will look at his film and shake his head and wish it had never been made.
I know I do.
I decided to read this article having listened to the BP podcast about unintended themes. Sounds like this movie is a great example of it. Is the screenwriter-producer-actor holding himself up for martyrdom or vilifying such a character? I have not seen the movie, but what most intrigues me is how common this kind of snarky, self-obsessed, holier-than-thou character is in today’s TV and cinema. Now I don’t mind a story with an a**hole for a character (for example, both leads in Notes on a Scandal; Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench), but is there a problem when this is the majority – or a sizeable proportion – of entertainment?
I feel like you’re being pretty harsh, here. I didn’t love the movie myself, but I don’t think the message is what you think it is. SPOILERS
Late in the film, the blackmailed kids call out Carson to his face and let him know what a dick he was being and he seems to take that in. He also, you know, dies. I think that’s Colfer judging the character Carson and saying “you think you’re better than this town so now you’re never going to leave it”. And much like Kevin Spacey in American Beauty, Carson has a post-death epiphany through movie magic, and seems to be humbled by it in the end.
I do agree that the character was probably less lovable than Colfer envisioned. This might be because he himself just recently left a small town high school where he was apparently bullied for being gay (he’s given interviews saying as much) and so he still has some residual anger there. Unfortunately, the Carson character wasn’t really bullied, just politely ignored for the most part, so his anger seemed too much.
Oh, I’m sure he didn’t intend for a “Bullying is okay if it’s towards the right people” message, but that’s definitely what came across, and it is precisely because we’re not really sure exactly what the various stereotypical kids actually did to deserve his hatred. They seemed to mostly leave him alone. And while ignoring somebody completely can be its own form of cruelty, here it seemed mostly to be a way of dealing with somebody that not merely refuses to be ignored, but insists that he’s the best person you know.
I do remember the scene in which the kids tell him off, along with another scene in which the head cheerleader asks him to back off because this may very well be the best time of her life. I was very excited by those scenes because it looked like they might be the initial spark that cause Carson to start to change. Unfortunately, this is not the case. One scene has no emotional consequences and Carson ultimately seems unaffected by it, and the other ends with Carson lecturing the cheerleader about following her dreams. So, in a scene where he could have seen her for the first time as a real person, he instead sees the opportunity to once again assert his moral and intellectual superiority, ending the scene with a quiet, “There has to be somebody other than me who realizes this.”
And as for him dying, and the accompanying epiphany. The random death seems to be fairly neutral, until we see that the other kids finally responding to Carson in his death and decide they should try to be more like him. And the epiphany actually seems to have less to do with how he treats others and more to do with not needing the approval and acceptance of others. His epiphany actually moves more towards self-righteousness, not less.