We all had that one high school teacher who made our lives a living hell. Whether they were impossibly stingy with good grades, unreasonably strict or just straight-up mean, almost everyone you run into is bound to have a story. Director Maureen Bharooca takes this shared truth and runs with it, asking: What if you could take real, tangible revenge on your worst teacher?
The Prank follows Ben (Connor Kalopsis), the kind of wholesome overachiever who has a green smoothie for breakfast every morning and carries multiple backups of each sheet of homework. He is en route to receiving a prestigious scholarship with nothing standing in his way. Well, nothing except for Mrs. Wheeler (Rita Moreno), his sadistic, ice-cold physics teacher. Indeed, Ben’s future is looking exceptionally bright until Wheeler announces that she suspects someone cheated on the midterm, and threatens to fail the whole class as a result.
Fuming, good-natured Ben briefly breaks character, venting to his rebellious coding-genius bestie Tanner (Ramona Young) that he wishes that he could get Wheeler fired. A lightbulb goes off in Tanner’s ever-conniving mind, and she proceeds to create a slew of deep-fakes and doctored images to frame Wheeler for the murder of a student who went missing at their high school.
The Prank boasts an inventive, one-of-a-kind premise. It has all the pieces you could ask for: Delightfully high stakes, endless possibilities for comedic moments and a 50/50 chance that the outcome will be either disastrous or cathartic.
Sadly, right out of the gate, it seems like Bharooca and writers Zak White and Rebecca Flinn-White are unsure of what to do with this goldmine of a conceit. Soon after the rumor starts to spread around school, Wheeler’s life starts to be impacted in a negative way. What could have been a grimly funny meditation on how far students are willing to go to exact revenge on their cruel teacher, though, quickly becomes a muddled jumble of ideas.
Indeed, the moment the titular prank is officially set into motion, the film becomes too ambitious for its own good and gets in its own way in the process. Partway through, The Prank introduces the idea that Wheeler might have actually killed the missing student, at which point the film rapidly lets go of any and all focus it had in the first act.
If The Prank’s plot and direction are confused, then its tone is doubly so. At first, it recalls breezy, quippy teen comedies such as Blockers or Booksmart. But more often than not, its humor misfires, falling into the sad category of films that try too hard to relate to Gen Z, but don’t quite have their finger on the pulse of the generation. The result is broad archetypes of overly gossipy teens and deeply outdated early 2010s-style memes. In the same way that The Prank thinks you can have it all when it comes to plot—that a film can simultaneously be about a far-fetched lie and the possibility that that lie might be true—it also spreads itself far too thin tone-wise. At times, it’s a highly-sanitized wisecracking teen flick. At others, it’s a dark comedy. And then there are the moments when it’s a pure horror movie.
Like the plot, Wheeler herself is similarly underdeveloped. The Prank wants us to believe that she is a soulless, relentless monster, but in reality, she just seems, well…strict. In our first scene with her, she asks a student to solve a complicated physics equation on the board. Then, she threatens to fail the class to punish a singular cheater. Given the fact that the entire film hinges on us believing that she is a merciless beast, a few more examples of her acting this way would have been welcomed. Still, Moreno is easily the best part of the film and is delightful to watch, delivering every snide remark with a satisfying dose of arch.
Kalopsis and Young both do their best with the hollow roles they are given: The former an uncomplicated goody-two-shoes, the latter the kind of girl who reads a coding handbook over her morning coffee. We’ve seen these characters 1000 times before, and these versions of them sadly don’t do much to untangle the film’s muddy plot or tone.
It’s hard to imagine anything more satisfying than watching a couple of underdogs exact revenge on a villainous character. And while there are moments in The Prank that fulfill this very human need, the film’s execution never manages to live up to its premise. And it’s hard to imagine anything less satisfying than that.
Director: Maureen Bharoocha
Writers: Rebecca Flinn-White, Zak White
Stars: Rita Moreno, Connor Kalopsis, Ramona Young
Release Date: March 13, 2022 (SXSW)
Aurora Amidon is a film journalist and passionate defender of Hostel: Part II. Follow her on Twitter for her latest questionable culture takes.