Amateurish even by the scrappy standards of ultra-low-budget independent filmmaking, first-time feature director Steve Szlarski's contribution to the DEATH WISH school of righteous vengeance is nevertheless surprisingly watchable. Soon after Dad (Joseph Minutillo) gambles away the family fortune on bad investments and hits the road, teenage James (Thomas Brandise) and his mother (Molly Castelloe) are forced leave the affluent Long Island suburb of Smithhaven for the dicier environs of South Hills, the kind of town where gangs use panty-waists like James for initiation fodder. Furious at his father but ever-respectful of authority, James tries to settle into his new school: He agrees to help decorate the gym for the Halloween dance, finds a new best friend in Bobby (Michael Brown) and has his eye on pretty Celeste (Asha Waks) from his English class. But James quickly makes some serious mistakes. First he offers a pen to Daryl (Robert Alexander), an unprepared student with a terrible attitude (an act Daryl construes as a serious dis); then when Iris (Mariana Carreno), the psychotic, bisexual leader of a local gang, invites him to a "party," James accepts and winds up having drunken sex with her. Unfortunately, Iris isn't the kind of girl who takes kindly to being blown off, so when she discovers that James has begun dating Celeste, she instructs her boys to teach the happy couple a lesson James won't soon forget. Pushed to the breaking point, James unwraps the 9mm handgun he found in woods, logs on to www.handgun.com for tips and techniques, and prepares to wreak his awful vengeance. It would be nice to think Szlarki set out to make a serious, civic-minded treatment of violence among suburban teens, but the end product walks and talks suspiciously like an exploitation flick (those long, lingering and completely superfluous cyberporn shots are a dead give away). But it's not a bad one: Beneath the poor scripting, dodgy dialogue, muddled sound, clumsy camerawork and even clumsier editing lie a couple of decent performances (Brandise may be a true talent in the raw) and some flashes of honest-to-God inspiration just enough to keep the whole shambling thing on track.
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