It’s no spoiler to reveal that Glee’s Chris Colfer kills off the character he plays in his screenwriting debut. Like in Sunset Blvd. and American Beauty, he’s, well, Struck by Lightning before the opening credits end and narrates the events of the film from beyond the grave. Also like in those classic films, one tends to forget this tidbit as the plot unfolds, only to be poignantly reminded as the extended flashback catches up with the opening scene.
The title also serves as an extended metaphor about how when inspiration strikes, just like a bolt of lightning, it seeks an exit. In the case of Carson Phillips (Colfer), that outlet is writing. With eyes on Northwestern University and eventually the New Yorker, this Clover High School overachiever learns from his woefully unknowledgeable high-school counselor, played by The Office’s Angela Kinsey—“Never heard of it,” she says of his college of choice—that he’ll have to do a little more than serve as president of the school’s Writer’s Club.
She suggests he start a literary magazine to demonstrate that he can write himself as well as inspire others. Given he’s a first-rate smartass, though—intellectual bullies can be just as bad as physical ones—few of his classmates are willing to contribute. That is, until he and his BFF-by-elimination Malerie (Rebel Wilson)—no one else will hang out with him—blackmail the student council to write pieces for their ’zine. Wilson, already delightful in breakout roles in Bridesmaids, Bachelorette and especially Pitch Perfect, is at once hysterical and unassuming here, her improvisations all the more hilarious because they’re not pushed onto the audience but rather integrated into the natural rhythm of the film.
Meanwhile, Carson’s drunk, pill-popping mom, Sheryl (Allison Janney), struggles to accept that her ex (Dermot Mulroney) has moved on with a pretty young pharmacist (Christina Hendricks), who’s six months pregnant. Overall, Carson’s home life is pretty rotten—the only decent adult in his world, his grandmother (Polly Bergen), is senile and doesn’t know who he is when he comes to visit. No wonder he’s so eager to escape.
But Carson’s big dreams clash with the disappointments his family has experienced and the measured expectations of his peers. This is the film’s big theme: At what point do we stop encouraging kids to dream big, and why do we think it’s too late for ourselves?
Unfortunately, Colfer’s script, directed by Saved!’s Brian Dannelly, stops short of delivering on its promise, dropping plotlines big and small: For example, Carson agrees to take antidepressants if his mother will finance his publication; after serving their purpose as a narrative device, the question of whether he actually takes them or not is never discussed. And it seems the lit mag at the center of the story would have made no difference at all. Moreover, we see no examples of Carson’s exemplary writing, and the submissions he receives from his classmates miss a huge opportunity to actually reveal and/or affect something about them.
In a refreshing departure from the usual course of coming-of-agers, there’s no romance here. In stark contrast to the sweet, sensitive gay character he portrays on Glee, Colfer here is aggressively smart and unrelentingly snarky, confronting teachers and students alike to the point that he’s unlikable, if not unsympathetic. It’s a smart move on his part, especially in material as autobiographical as this—Struck by Lightning started as a speech based on his own experiences that he performed competitively in high school—showcasing his potential range as an actor and as a writer.
Director: Brian Dannelly
Writer: Chris Colfer
Starring: Chris Colfer, Allison Janney, Christina Hendricks, Sarah Hyland, Carter Jenkins, Brad William Henke, Rebel Wilson, Angela Kinsey, Polly Bergen, Dermot Mulroney
Release Date: Jan. 11, 2013