After taking a six-year break from acting, during which he attended college with twin brother (and current Jughead on Riverdale) Cole, Dylan Sprouse (of Disney’s The Suite Life fame) makes his long-awaited return to the screen with Dismissed. The low budget, and relatively low stakes, high school set horror movie is the directorial debut of Benjamin Arfmann, from a script by Brian McAuley. A sort of modernist take on Stephen King’s Apt Pupil, only with the roles reversed.
Sprouse is Lucas, a new student in Mr. Butler’s English class who takes a shine to his teacher as an overachiever with plenty to say about Shakespeare, Dostoevsky and everything in between. Things progress amicably at first, Lucas impressing Butler with the extent of his knowledge before taking up a spot on the school’s chess team, which he also runs. With his center-parted blonde hair and pressed dress shirts, Lucas is the picture of a perfect student.
When Butler makes the mistake of giving his new charge a B+ (the nerve!), however, he soon finds himself at the mercy of a teenage sociopath. It rather too quickly becomes clear that young Lucas is prepared to do pretty much anything to…solidify his place in Harvard? He has to get perfect, straight As, basically. Or else. And the well-meaning Butler finds that his life will be turned upside down in the process unless he acquiesces to Lucas’s demands.
Dismissed is a slight, but by no means terrible film. Tense, rather than outright scary, with a plinky-plonky score and a sheen of blue-grey darkness in spite of its California setting, it’s a perfectly diverting way to spend less than 90 minutes (future HDTGM? contender perhaps?). Sprouse doesn’t even get top billing. The biggest name on the cast-list is the always welcome Randall Park who, although he doesn’t get a whole lot to do here, makes an impression.
Considering he calls his dad “Father” and supposedly wrote an essay on why the Nazis weren’t so bad, something that gives the film a real-life grounding considering the resurgence of young, “alt-right” people, it’s clear he’s a bad egg. Although presented as a bit of an enigma, Lucas could stand to keep his sociopathic tendencies a bit more under wraps. There’s a sense that his easy control of those around him may be due to their own stupidity, rather than his being a master manipulator.
Case in point, Dismissed‘s female characters, two out of three of whom exist only to be victims. The third, the African American school principal, has some bite but isn’t given much to do besides sit behind a desk and admonish whoever is in front of her. The worst example is a classmate Lucas indoctrinates into his mad scheme, who doesn’t seem to question how he’s blatantly using her even when she’s pushed to throw herself at a teacher.
Frequent voice actor Kent Osbourne infuses Mr. Butler with gravitas and a real life of his own (and thankfully, he isn’t shilling jingle jangle on the side). He makes a perfect foil for the devious, but still green Lucas. Watching as he struggles to write and rewrite an application to be a college professor, we just know something is going to go horribly wrong with it, but he’s secretly tough underneath his cardigan and doesn’t hesitate to tell on Lucas when the time comes.
As for Sprouse himself, he looks a little stiff and uncomfortable in Lucas’s buttoned-all-the-way-to-the-neck dress shirts, the prim and proper look betraying that this is a young man who dressed as Fabio at one of his worst moments for Halloween this year. He isn’t as well-versed in darkness as brother Cole, whose Jughead is already a bad boy heartthrob in his own right, but there’s a sense Dylan could grow into his weirdness (his next role sees him retaining those long, blonde locks).
Given that this is a standard issue obsession/revenge movie, Dismissed includes the requisite shot slowly revealing Lucas watching a house, in plain sight, from his car (something that was memorably subverted in The Killing Of A Sacred Deer, to showcase the character’s flagrant disregard for being caught). Sprouse doesn’t overplay these moments, instead giving Lucas a quiet, calculating coolness that would be chilling if he were given slightly more to do than plot and overreact.
At its core, Dismissed isn’t as over-the-top as this year’s earlier Katherine Heigl-Rosario Dawson two-hander Unforgettable, nor as clever or controlled as some of the sub-genre’s more classic offerings. It’s closest in spirit to the underrated Swimfan, which had equally few surprises up its sleeve but, bolstered by assured central performances from both stalker and stalked, managed to elevate itself beyond its conventions.
WICKED RATING: 6/10
Director(s): Benjamin Arfmann
Writer(s): Brian Mc Auley
Stars: Randall Park, Dylan Sprouse, Kent Osbourne, Chris Bauer
Release: November 21, 2017 (Digital and VOD)
Studio/ Production Co: Boulderlight Pictures
Length: 86 minutes