Like detention, “Tanner Hall,” the new coming-of-age-in-a-boarding-school drama, allows room for a lot of thinking about other things — its cast most notably, since watching their struggle to move beyond the mundane is painful.
I found time to wonder how Rooney Mara, the film’s studious Fernanda, will do morphing into the angry punk enigma Lisbeth Salander for director David Fincher’s version of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” in a couple of months. And why Tom Everett Scott, who blows in like an autumn wind as major crush material and can do sexy-brooding intellectual so well, doesn’t turn up in better films. Or when the intriguingly edgy Scottish actress Georgia King, the movie’s requisite girl on a ledge, is going to seriously break out.
It comes as no surprise that the film is the shaky feature debut from the writing-directing team of Tatiana von Furstenberg and Francesca Gregorini. They met in college and had both clocked time in boarding schools, so “Tanner Hall” is something of a memory piece.
That sense of a place out of time — in this case, a gracefully aging New England boarding school — is nicely evoked by production designer Ray Kluga (“Ira & Abby” and the upcoming “Friends With Kids”). Director of photography Brian Rigney Hubbard (“Circumstance”) makes good use of staircases, corridors and communal bathrooms beaten down by years of careless use to keep the film’s occupants in a series of tight spots, which in truth they are.
As Fernanda, Mara is the soulful center, the rule-following serious one of the group heading into its senior year. Victoria (King) comes out of Fernanda’s past, caustic and manipulative and out to rock the safe haven that school has always been. Kate (Brie Larson) and Lucasta (Amy Ferguson) are Fernanda’s longtime best friends, with Kate hyper-sexualized and Lucasta sexually conflicted.
Indeed, sex — who’s had it, who’s not having it and who’s still dreaming of it — is as much on everyone’s minds as the fundamental friendship shifts that come with high school. It’s not just the kids getting into trouble, either. Take the Middlewoods (please). As “Tanner Hall’s” tightly wound housemother (Amy Sedaris) and her English teacher (Chris Kattan) hubby with a “Lolita” complex — their copulation trials and tribulations become something to endure; I believe they were meant to be comic relief.
There is a lot of boundary testing by all the girls, most of which lands them in varying degrees of trouble. For Fernanda, there is Gio (Scott), the hunk who also happens to be the husband of a close friend of her mother’s. He’s got the looks, the snazzy sports car and for some unknown reason plenty of time to squire a high school senior around. It doesn’t take long to figure out that he represents trouble, or at least the potential for it.
Mara’s chemistry with Scott gives the film some spark, that is when King’s Victoria is not trying to burn the place and everyone in it down (not literally). Larson provides one of the film’s funniest bits, with Kate’s dramatic temptation of Mr. Middlewood played to the other girls for effect. But the better moments are fleeting. More often, the film feels flat-footed, and the story plays out as you’d expect. Long before “Tanner Hall” ends, you may well find yourself wishing for the final bell.
MPAA rating: R for sexual content including brief nudity and some drug use
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Playing: At AMC Lowe’s Broadway 4, Santa Monica; AMC 30 at the Block, Orange