Sex, drugs, violence and murder, these are not the things one is supposed to associate with high school (although one might be forced to reconsider this notion when looking at the current state of South African schools). However, for the purposes of this review let us pretend that high school is more a place of learning than anything else: A place driven by good intentions and well meaning individuals, a society unto itself with its own class system and rules.

It has its fair share of problems as a result but these are mostly of a petty nature – squabbles between one group and another, love triangles and that sort of thing. No one really wants to murder someone at an institution of learning do they? What I’ve just described is a definition of that infectiously innocent, and often nauseating, genre of film; the high school movie. 10 Things I Hate About You, She’s All That and Pretty in Pink are but a few examples.

Brick takes these established genre traits – the jocks, the drama club and the loner nerd type – and turns them on their heads by including elements of film noir, as well as the influence of hardboiled crime novelist Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon) – and does something extraordinary.

Brendan Frye (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is an intense and devout outsider at San Clemente high school in Southern California. He eats his lunch alone at the back of the school because he chooses to, even if his nerdy appearance might suggest otherwise. He likes to be alone. However, when an ex-girlfriend, Emily (Emilie de Ravin), contacts him in distress he is forced to immerse himself in the corrupt and seedy world of the high school. Brendan – with the help of his friend/assistant The Brain (Matt O’Leary) – soon finds himself on a dangerous path leading to an individual named The Pin (Lukas Haas) and a quest to uncover the meaning of a word – brick – that was used by Emily before she died.

Brick may seem simple enough on paper, combine two different styles of filmmaking giving birth to a new film hybrid, but what director/writer Rian Johnson has done is far more sophisticated than that. What could have so easily fallen flat is elevated by an extremely tight and dialogue intense script that must be praised. Words flow from the mouths of Johnson’s characters like water; the ease with which they speak Johnson’s unique lingo (on-screen and on paper) is phenomenal. The elements of noir and crime novel are not represented so much visually as in the way the actors perform and in the delivery of their lines. The dialogue drives not only the film but develops the world of the crime-solving-Brendan. It’s a fantastic mash up.

That said, I found that the combination of these styles, at the outset, grated me enormously. However, as the film continued I was won over. The realisation of the film’s characters, (gangster types with mothers around pouring them juice) and especially Brendan, made the film a joy to watch.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who funnily enough acted in 10 Things I Hate About You, has grown up and now looks freakishly like Heath Ledger (who starred in the same film). His performance can only be described as one of immense coolness. Dorky and bespectacled he gives off the impression that he has the smarts to solve the case but if things get physical then he’s going to have a problem.

Not so. Neatly folding his glasses and placing them safely into their holder, as soon as the lid is closed he becomes a fighter. He may not be the best but he certainly can take a beating. This combination of smarts and strength makes Brendan one of the most enjoyable screen characters I’ve experienced this year; he is an unlikely hero of astonishing strength. Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives a great performance.

I haven’t read any of Dashiell Hammett’s novels but if they’re anything like the movie they inspired then they must be a bloody good read. Think of Brick as a hardcore Bugsy Malone minus the custard pies and with the addition of drugs and violence. At times the film is tongue-in-cheek, acknowledging what it is – high school kids playing gangsters – but it never loses focus and the result is a great debut film from Rian Johnson. Brick also proves that you don’t need much money (it was made for the minuscule amount of about $475,000) to produce great cinema.

Check out the official website at where you can pickup a copy of the novella upon which the script was based and the script itself all for free, with footnotes from director Rian Johnson.

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