SXSW 2011: ‘Wuss’ could have been an excellent dark indie comedy

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Wuss

Directed by Clay Liford

Written by Clay Liford

USA – 2011

Wuss may not be director Clay Liford’s first feature, but it certainly feels like it is. Adequately made, and competently acted, Wuss could be, and for a while appears to be, an excellent dark indie comedy. But the film’s stylistic inconsistency and simplistic characterizations cripple the film and obscure whatever messages or themes Liford may be trying to convey.

The most consistent thing about the film is Nate Rubin’s skilled portrayal of Mitch, the titular wuss. He is first seen at a high school reunion where he slowly, so awkwardly, must reveal to a high-school crush that, yes, he still lives in the same small town with his mom, and, yes, he actually teaches at this very high school. The situation feels well worn, but Rubin owns it. From there Mitch gets bullied by his slimy principal (Alex Karpovsky), who calls him “Mitch the Bitch,” completely ignored by his students, and, eventually, severely beaten on school grounds by one of his hard-ass students named Re-Up (Ryan Anderson). And then the movie becomes a misguided thesis on class-war slash glamorization of poverty.

Up to to and including the difficult beating scene, the movie coasts along smoothly, alternately funny and darkly familiar. But once Maddie Worth (Alicia Anthony), a straight A student with straight A looks and an F- home-life, enters the picture, Wuss falters. The problem is that Maddie is an amalgamation of male fetishes, not a real character. She is at once beautiful, brainy, street-smart, a distressed damsel, a hard ass gun-mule for her brother, in band class, shy, extroverted, a pothead, virginal, into wussy older high school teachers, and orphaned. Part of the problem here is that street life seems to be a little out of Liford’s depth. Not to say the topic’s really in my wheelhouse, either, but Mitch’s life and teacher friends are so intimately (and hilariously) realized and recognizable that it’s incredibly  jarring to watch Maddie and the other cardboard, self-serious, poor people exist in the same movie.

There are a few exceptions. For instance, a scene between Mitch and Re-Up’s mother looks for a bond between his struggles as a teacher and her struggles as a mother and mostly succeeds. But, largely, Wuss fails at realistically representing the core class relationship. The ending, too, is problematic: It builds, quite stylishly, in the final act but eventually sputters out with an ineffective twist and a couple faux-meaningful gestures. Mitch is clearly supposed to change by the end, and in all fairness, he does seem to thanks to Rubin. But the message of the film, outside of “living at your suburban childhood home is lame,” is bafflingly unclear.

Wuss contains many promising elements, and Liford is a strong visual director who I aim to keep an eye on. This film may be aimless and unfulfilled, but its fairly enjoyable throughout thanks in part to Liford’s strong storytelling.

Emmet Duff

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