An enchanting and bright mix of fun and science, Popular Theory tests the chemistry of a tale as old as time: The high school hierarchy.
For a tween, social isolation can be detrimental, especially when you’re in high school at only twelve years old and only have science and your genius brain to keep you company. For Erwin (Sophia Reid-Gantzert), Popular Theory’s protagonist, this is the case.
Though Erwin is more than content with her social circle of one, two if you count her beloved poster of Erwin Schrodinger on her bedroom wall, her aunt (Cheryl Hines) is worried for her well-being. Right when Erwin is in the midst of planning and perfecting the perfect PB&J making machine for the state science fair, her aunt bans Erwin from science, swiping her room clean of her cherished beakers, chemicals, and chalkboards. With her eye still on the prize, ambitious to still win the scholarship to go to summer science camp, she teams up with the only other genius high-school tween, Winston (Lincoln Lambert). Together, they create something that could change students’ high school status forever: Pheromone gum.
As the film chronicles the making, testing, and consequences of the popularity-changing pheromone gum, Erwin and Winston are an amusing and adorable duo to watch. Despite both Reid-Gantzert and Lambert being very young and early in their acting careers, they both succeed at adding depth to their stereotypical nerdy and socially clueless characters, making the film all the more memorable rather than just another high-school nerds vs. popular kids story.
A prominent part of the film was each of their characters having their own colors: Erwin’s is blue and Winston’s is orange. Each of the colors was exclusively their own, from their rooms to their books to their clothes. When Erwin and Winston started to grow their friendship (which Erwin was adamant about not doing when they first met, for she only saw Winston as competition and would only call him her “colleague,”) their colors would intertwine: Erwin would have on a orange and blue checkered sweater vest instead of plain blue, or some of the books in Winston’s stack would have some blue poking out. But when they were driven apart after a major fight, they each went back to only sporting their respective color. This charming detail emphasizes the chemistry between Erwin and Winston, adding some uniqueness to the film among the “nerds vs. popular” coming-of-age subcategory.
Besides Erwin and Winston, two more bottom-of-the-social-hierarchy characters make Popular Theory an amusing watch: Casey (Kat Conner Sterling), a frizzy-haired and homely knitter who wants nothing more than to be accepted by the popular girls, and Alan (Varak Baronian), a geeky superhero buff that even other geeky superhero buffs look down on. Seeing their suffering social skills, Erwin and Winston select them to test their pheromone gum on, and everyone in school ends up worshiping them, proving the gum to work a little too well. Seeing the events transpire of Casey and Alan handling newfound extreme popularity very poorly was the most comical and fun parts of the film.
After seeing the gum’s drastic effects on Casey and Allen’s social status, Erwin proves to not be immune to yearning for more attention and more friends, thus leading her to pop some of the gum. This drives Erwin and Winston apart, leading to Winston creating his own science fair project and Erwin not entering at all. Furthermore, Erwin’s sister Ari, pounds two packs of gum, and Erwin ends up having to help her escape a mob of people from the mall attracted to her pheromones. This leads to a heartfelt conversation between the two sisters, who have never been friends, and Ari admits that she’s felt inadequate to Erwin her whole life because of her geniusness, whereas Ari says all she has is friends, boys and high school popularity. It’s a sweet but stereotypical “even mean girls are fighting their own battles,” but adds an endearing familial touch to the film.
The film comes to a heartwarming conclusion, and Winston proves to be the most wholesome character in the movie. He abandons his science fair project right as the judges come up to him and helps Ari and Erwin escape the mall mob. In a typical high school fashion, Winston and Erwin become friends again, and even form a friend group with Alan and Casey, the high school hierarchy goes back to how it once was, Ari and Erwin become closer as sisters, and the gum, ingenious but dangerous, is never to be seen again.
Popular Theory is humorous and creative, and adds its own twists to an archetypal high-school narrative. It’s memorable, but it doesn’t completely stand out among other films in the coming-of-age category. It’s reminiscent of a Disney Channel original movie — fun, colorful, and with heart, but one of many.
Popular Theory will be released in US theaters on February 9, 2024.