The apparent message of Struck by Lightning is that we should always hold on to our hopes and dreams, even if they never become a reality. Such was the fate of Carson Phillips (Chris Colfer, also the writer and co-producer), who was struck by a random bolt of lightning and killed; he didn’t get to graduate from high school, let alone fulfill his burning desire to leave his hometown, attend Northwestern University, and become the youngest editor for The New Yorker. Are we to assume, then, that his brief life was meaningless? Not according to his postmortem voiceover narration, which guides us through the entire film. His argument is that, by virtue of the fact that he never let go of his dreams, that he actively strived for something more out of life, he gave himself meaning.
It is indeed true that life is fast and unpredictable, and I personally agree with Carson’s philosophy of believing in something, anything, rather than nothing. However, I don’t think the film itself does the best possible job of delivering its message. Tonally, there’s no balance between its quirkiness and its solemnity, both of which are overly heightened. Narratively, its founded on a premise that’s not only implausible but also mean-spirited. And even though Colfer does work to make at least some of them three-dimensional, so few of the characters are likeable. How can we care about what happens to them fully if we’re given only a handful of reasons to invest in them emotionally? Those of them that are relatively decent are either too eccentric to take seriously or sadly deprived of screen time.
Colfer wants us to sympathize with his character. To an extent, we do. Carson’s mother, Sheryl (Allison Janney), had him only because she thought it would save her marriage. It didn’t; his father, Neal (Dermot Mulroney), left when he was only a child. Since then, his mother has become a shadow of her former self – a broken spirit dependant on alcohol, specifically wine, and prescription drugs. Even when he was a child, his grandmother (Polly Bergen) had to be put into a nursing home due to the effects of Alzheimer’s disease. Now that he’s a teenager, she has her memories of Carson but is never able to recognize him when he’s with her. His primary escape was his writing, and his dreams of getting out of his small California town and making something of himself in New York City.
All this, I can appreciate. But when it comes to the entire middle section of the film, I find myself resisting. This is the point at which Carson’s life in high school is examined the closest. He’s locked in a vicious cycle; his intelligence notwithstanding, his dry wit, biting sarcasm, and combative nature has earned him the disdain of almost every student and faculty member, which of course only exacerbates his negative attitude and perpetuates his bad behavior. He’s the editor of his school’s newspaper, which no one, least of all his staff, cares much about. This means that he has to write all the pieces himself during late-night sessions. Upon learning from a clueless guidance counselor that his chances of getting into Northwestern would dramatically improve if he were the editor of a literary magazine, Carson sets out to get one started.
Naturally, no one is much interested in submitting any material. And now we see just how desperate Carson is; he resorts to blackmailing the students and faculty. If they don’t generate any pieces of creative writing for his magazine, he will expose their guilty secrets. His targets include all the expected character typecasts, including the closeted boy from the rich family, the goth chick in a Satan-worshipping cult, and the preppy cheerleader having an affair with the football coach. Carson’s partner in crime is Malerie, who documents every waking moment with a video camera and repeatedly tries to pass off very famous literary opening lines as her own. Malerie is played by Rebel Wilson, and after seeing her in several movies, I’ve come to the conclusion that I just don’t get her. Here is a woman whose entire career has been devoted to acting strangely without being relatable. We don’t see the truth in her roles. We only gawk helplessly.
Sheryl, meanwhile, believes she’s being supportive and realistic by secretly sabotaging Carson’s efforts to get into Northwestern. She also encourages him to go on antidepressants, for she knows that they will lessen his desire to leave home. This ties into an underdeveloped subplot involving Neal and his pregnant fiancée, April (Christina Hendricks), a pharmacist who fills Sheryl’s bountiful prescriptions. What are we to make of these characters? I liked April, who just wants to get along with others, but I didn’t have much affection for either Sheryl or Neal. Judging by the way they were developed, I suspect Colfer didn’t, either. Knowing this, how seriously can we take his notion that dreams are worth hanging onto no matter what, for you could be here one day and gone the next? Struck by Lightning poses some interesting ideas, but its methods leave a lot to be desired.
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