Director Brian Dannelly, he of 2004’s funny, subversive “Saved!,” used condescension in a satirical-but-not-farcical way, but with “Struck by Lightning,” the protagonist just condescends everybody. Chris Colfer of TV’s “Glee” stars and makes his screenwriting debut with this ostensibly well-meaning comedy-drama that just plants the smartest and most arrogant kid in the room full of the usual high-school suspects whom we’ve seen from “The Breakfast Club” to “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” Though the least of its problems, this fuddy-duddy message movie treads on ground that has already been covered before and better.
In a film called “Struck by Lightning,” it’s only imperative that the lead character be struck by lightning in the first minute. But first, we must see what made the character such a noble tragic figure. Feeling trapped in the city of Clover and tired of being at the bottom of the social food chain, outspoken and over-ambitious high school senior Carson Phillips (Colfer) has some pipe-dream aspirations. He wants to win the Nobel Prize, be the editor of The New Yorker, as well as the youngest journalist to be published in The New York Times, The LA Times and The Chicago Tribune. The school guidance counselor says being the president of the writers’ club and the school newspaper (which nobody reads) won’t cut it if he wants to get into Northwestern University, so he’ll have to start a literary magazine to better his chances. With help from fellow misfit Malerie (Rebel Wilson), Carson blackmails his popular classmates into writing for the magazine, like finding out the cheerleader is fornicating with a coach or walking in on two clandestinely gay guys and threatening to “out” them. This is his way of getting them to submit stories to the magazine, but we already know it won’t matter since he’s later struck dead.
Actor-screenwriter Colfer takes on producing credits as well, and for a 22-year-old, that’s a tall order. Carson is an outcast without being a milquetoast or a pushover: He’s precocious, cynical and pretty cavalier. While the first two traits suggest he has a backbone, Carson isn’t always an easy one to root for. Colfer is hugely talented, making his career out of playing the creative and openly gay Kurt Hummel, but that lovable character was never off-putting. Since Carson dies, he’s allowed to be whiny, act superior, repay his classmates (and mother) by bullying them, and toss out acerbic bon mots, right?
Every other teen character is full of snarky sarcasm (“I hate you more than I hate the Holocaust/Eat me, hobbit”) but little shading. Sarah Hyland of TV’s “Modern Family” plays a snooty cheerleader and Student Council president, and “Suburgatory’s” Allie Grant plays another snot, but both of their ABC programs are sharper and more likable than this. When Carson calls them all “walking clichÃ©s,” Hyland’s reaction is a thudding throwaway. But national treasure Rebel Wilson is still called upon to do her shtick, here using it to play the dippy, awkward Malerie who films everything through her video camera because she can’t write her own words.
The grown-ups are a bit more interesting. In a subplot that could fill out its own feature, Carson’s dad Neil (Dermot Mulroney) has walked out on him and his overly medicated, self-pitying mom Sheryl (Allison Janney). Janney is wonderful as usual, showing sad, honest dephs, whether she’s throwing herself a pathetic pity party and sleeping all day or gussying herself up before her ex-husband swings by her house to get her to sign the divorce papers. She’s actually a well-drawn character that deserves her own movie. Unbeknownst to Sheryl until she has to refill her prescriptions, Neil is engaged to a sweet pharmacist named April (Christina Hendricks). Carson also visits his senile grandmother (Polly Bergen), who literally doesn’t know who he is anymore.
“Struck by Lightning” has nothing but good intentions, however, it never feels fully realized, nothing much comes to pass, and its point-and-shoot cinematography looks like a rush job. As insightful as a fortune cookie, the film admirably concludes without any easy fixes, but its conclusion is emotionally inert and really sort of smug. That probably wasn’t the takeaway Colfer intended, but he’s still young, so hopefully his next script will strike lightning.
90 min., not rated (equivalent to a PG-13).