Dir. by Patrick Read Johnson - 1 hr. 30 min.
by Clayton Hollifield
"Angus" is one of the most underrated films of the '90s. It might be remembered solely for it's soundtrack; aside from being a picture perfect portrait of 1995, it contains Green Day's first new song released after "Dookie" blew up and sold a bajillion copies. There are a million reasons that people could dismiss it, chiefly that it's just another high school movie. I'd argue that "Angus" nails the specific experience of being a high school outcast (without hiding behind the trappings of stylish nihilism or sarcasm or an ironic approach to sugarcoat the experience) so completely that someone dismissing it reveals a personal defect in one's humanity: the inability to understand the plight of others. Which, conveniently, is also one of the themes of "Angus."
Angus (Charlie Talbert) is not one of the popular kids in school. He's overweight, quick to lose his temper when he's inevitably mocked about it, hopelessly in love with a cheerleader, Melissa Lefevre (Ariana Richards) he's never even spoken to. He's good at science, but plays football because he's big and agile enough to protect the more popular kids, like quarterback Rick Sanford (James Van Der Beek), who coincidentally is dating that cheerleader, but never gets any recognition for doing anything good. A glimmer of hope arrives: Angus gets an interview for admittance to a science magnet school. And at the same time, Rick and his buddies decide to play a cruel prank on Angus: they rig the vote for an upcoming dance so that Angus is voted Homecoming King, opposite Melissa, which the entire school knows is a mockery designed to humiliate Angus.
For something that's superficially another teenage outcast film, there is an incredible amount going on here. One of the film's strengths is it's cast, where the parents aren't just generic figures with nothing to do. Angus' single mom is played by Kathy Bates, and his soon-to-be-married to a much younger woman grandfather who lives under the same roof is played by George C. Scott. And while they're doing their best to help out Angus, they do have their own things that they're concerned about. This was also the first film for star Charlie Talbert and James Van Der Beek, who pulls off the arrogant poofy-haired football star/bully with a sense of entitlement that's menacing on it's own. Even Angus' little buddy, Troy (Chris Owen), was played by The Sherminator from the "American Pie" series. Granted, most of these people were chosen for fitting a certain look, but one of the things to the film's credit is that they don't cast a bunch of twenty-five year-old gym rats, and try to pass them off as high school kids. In fact, I can't stop thinking that it was damned near a miracle that "Angus" got made with a star who was overweight. There are so many ways that this film could have gone wrong, and trying to convince audiences that a kid who was like five or ten pounds overweight was as troubled as Angus was (and that he'd be treated in the manner that he is over the course of the film) would have stretched credibility.
But let's get into the meat of the film. Yes, it appears to be a comedic premise: fat kid loves the cheerleader, and gets mocked for it. And there's certainly a number of people who wouldn't see Angus as the victim in this situation. But nearly all the laughter from this film is going to be of the uncomfortable kind. The point, years before challenging bullying became another way to get your face on TV, is that treating people that are a little different is not fucking okay. There is a line in the film that sums up what every outcast learns the hard way: people will leave you alone if you're laughing along with them. And in a social context, that's true. But that doesn't account for what happens when that person is finally alone in their bedroom, with no one watching. "Angus" doesn't shy away from that. For instance, when Rick runs Angus' underwear up the flagpole for all to see, Angus is so horrified that he hides in the bushes until well after everyone's gone. When Rick pushes Troy around to give him some dirt on Angus to embarrass him with, Troy capitulates, but only after Rick has literally broken Troy's arm (because Troy's possibly the smallest kid in school, and Rick is a jock without concern for his own behavior), then Troy lies about what happened. This is the fact: these kids spend their entire days trying to avoid undue attention, knowing that whatever sticks out is going to cause them more than just grief, but deliberate humiliation and possibly injury. And when you're the biggest kid in school, there's nowhere to hide.
And, as a kid who had to suffer through years of little league with jerseys three sizes too small (that would be me), watching scenes where Angus is trying vainly to fit into a black tuxedo, begging for a piece of normalcy to cling to, and instead being told that the only thing they have in his size is a purple (it's plum!) tux, well, it feels pretty damned familiar. A lot of this film felt really, uncomfortably familiar. The entire second act of "Angus" is brutal, and if you watch it and don't get that feeling in the pit of your stomach, then your high school experience was fundamentally pretty awesome. For everyone else, it's one visceral humiliation after another, until the knockout blow finally comes (and it's a doozy). There is a point to it all, and it's not simply to pile on an already-burdened character. When Angus loses his temper, which happens a few times, he explicitly states, and is immediately contradicted, that people don't understand what he's going through. Part of Angus' problems are that he's a target, but some of it is also that he's cutting himself off from everyone else. You can see it in his body language; he's just too self-conscious to be able to pick up on what's going on around him.
The character's story arc is not just about getting to the dance to have his moment with Melissa, it's about being able to get out of his own head for a minute, and to get away from self-pity. His grandfather tells him repeatedly that the only words to live by are "screw 'em," but Angus just wants to exist in peace. He does eventually get there, but only after coming to terms with himself. When he starts understanding the people around him, they open up to him a bit, and he finally starts to move past a self-centered approach into something more open and inclusive. Everyone has problems. Everyone. Except Rick Sanford, who's just an asshole, and for no good reason. And, to the film's credit, no cheap explanation is ever offered for Rick's behavior; some people are just constitutionally nasty, and no pop psychology diagnosis can change it. But the film ends up with Angus in a better place mentally than he was, which is an achievement.
"Angus" is a really, really heavy movie. Or maybe you were the quarterback, and don't understand what all the fuss is about. But I found it a very difficult movie to deal with emotionally, because it nailed all the details of what it's like to be a weird kid in high school with nowhere to hide. Beyond being a moving piece of fiction, it also confirmed to me that I made the right choice in avoiding my high school reunions - nostalgic hazes can't obscure the fact that nobody ever leaves high school emotionally, and there are some things that I'd rather not revisit. I'm really glad that I re-watched "Angus," even if it was a rough experience. Sometimes, we all need a reminder that our experiences aren't unique, no matter how heavy they may weigh us down, and that the world isn't out just to get each of us, specifically. Also, the soundtrack really is completely awesome. Especially that Green Day song...
Green Day - "J.A.R."
4.5 / 5 - TV (HD)