The Prank (SXSW Review): A Messy Bait-and-Switch Thriller
The Prank starts out as an alright high school drama with a tiny amount of its potential realized, but it devolves into as basic a thriller as you can get.
The Prank, directed by Maureen Bharoocha, stars Conor Kalopsis as Ben, an overachieving high school student, and Ramona Young as Tanner, a slacker with advanced computer skills who lives in the moment. When Ben’s cruel, abusive teacher Mrs. Wheeler (Rita Moreno) catches one of her students cheating on a crucial midterm and that student doesn’t come forward and confess, she takes her revenge by failing the entire class. As a result, Tanner devises and executes a plan to frame Mrs. Wheeler on social media for the murder of a missing student, which sets of a chain reaction of events that get increasingly out of hand.
Based on that premise, I saw a lot of potential for this film to put a spotlight on themes of adolescent stress and frustration, the ways social media can be manipulated and abused, and the challenge of the audience of where they draw the line on how a devious prank like this affects such a horrible person like Mrs. Wheeler. And make no mistake, Mrs. Wheeler very early on shows herself to be a wretched human being. I have a very short fuse when it comes to teachers who deliberately and publicly belittle, mistreat, and in Wheeler’s case, even half-threaten their students, so despite the irresponsible recklessness of Tanner’s prank, I couldn’t find myself to have any shred of sympathy for Wheeler when the fallout took its toll on her. (I swear I must have flipped her off five times, that’s how much she angered me.)
But whatever commentary The Prank could have possibly made about how far is too far for situations like this is pretty much chucked out the window by the two-thirds point. It’s very hard for me to say exactly why without going into spoiler territory, but a certain reveal completely shifts the gears of this film into straight-up thriller territory. Granted, there is another smart reveal a bit earlier that initially puts a lot of grey area into which character you could side with on this matter, but any conflicting thoughts that any audience member would have are then lost once The Prank shows what it’s actually going for. At best, everything is simplified to an almost childish degree. At worst, you could possibly make the argument that this film actually condones certain terrible behaviors, given our eventual knowledge and the far too cutesy, celebratory ending (and a baffling final shot that raises too many unneeded questions).
I respect the attempts made by The Prank to completely shift gears on us the way it does, trying to make us think it’s one type of movie but then unveiling itself as something different. But that “something different” is not as interesting as what had been established beforehand, neutering what little intrigue there was before. That’s not to say the first half is anything special. The Prank is clearly going for a goofy vibe with its writing and acting – which somewhat eases the shock of when it later gets outright ridiculous – portraying a lot of its characters as caricatures in a way that reminded me of a John Hughes movie. But whereas Hughes managed to balance that silliness with genuine heart and emotion, this film struggles to make itself feel authentic. The Prank also tries to portray the short attention span of a lot of internet culture, in how the students and faculty seem to be totally absorbed by a story one minute but then end the day moving on to something else. I like that idea as a form of satire, but because of the film’s uneven tone, it doesn’t quite work as well as I’d hoped.
Rita Moreno completely steals the show, going far outside what I imagine is her comfort zone and leaving such a strong impression as a character even she herself called a “bitch.” Conor Kalopsis is good as Ben, maybe the only actor who feels grounded despite his own quirks. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for Ramona Young. I hate dunking on actors, but her vocal inflections, way of speaking, and overall appearance don’t ring true to me for what her character is supposed to be. She feels too squeaky-clean for the more relaxed dude-bro vibe she’s supposed to have (every time she actually says “dude” or “bro” is groan-worthy). Maybe she was just miscast, or maybe the direction didn’t know how to handle her character.
All in all, The Prank starts off as an uneven, semi-competent high school drama, and it ends as about as basic and generic a thriller as you can get. While I admire the shift in concept, the execution makes the film come across like it doesn’t know what it wants to be or where it wants to go, leaving us with an overall confused film that left no impact on me whatsoever. It seems clear that the cast and crew had a lot of fun making it, but that unfortunately doesn’t translate to a good experience for me. The film got a modest applause from my audience, so maybe I’ll be in the minority here, but I can’t really recommend The Prank myself. It had a lot of potential, but it turns out the joke was on me.
The Prank premiered at SXSW 2022 on March 13, 2022. Read our recommendations of films to watch at the festival!