Title: Tanner Hall
Directed By: Francesca Gregorini and Tatiana von Furstenberg
Starring: Rooney Mara, Georgia King, Brie Larson, Amy Ferguson, Tom Everett Scott, Chris Kattan, Shawn Pyfrom, Ryan Schira, Amy Sedaris
Sure, it’s nice for a film to have a solid script paired with appropriate visuals, but sometimes, movies can get away with having the former, but not the latter. The bigger problem comes when you’re trying to achieve the reverse and mask weak writing with a pretty picture. In fact, in most instances, it’s impossible and Tanner Hall is certainly an example of one of those cases.
It’s another year at Tanner Hall boarding school. Fernanda, Kate and Lucasta (Rooney Mara, Brie Larson and Amy Ferguson) are back as usual, but this year, their trio picks up a fourth wheel, Fernanda’s childhood friend Victoria (Georgia King). While Kate and Lucasta are both easily swayed by Victoria’s power of persuasion, Fernanda’s onto her as she remembers Victoria’s darker side from their younger years.
On top of the rift in their friendships, each girl has an added trouble to manage. Victoria’s is the most deeply rooted, stemming from her mother’s drunken disapproval while Kate’s is a situation she creates herself, sexually taunting her teacher, Mr. Middlewood (Chris Kattan), until he finally takes the bait. Meanwhile, Lucasta’s having trouble managing her relationship with the local pizza boy, Hank (Shawn Pyfrom), while Fernanda kicks off one with a much older man, her mother’s friend’s husband, Gio (Tom Everett Scott).
Tanner Hall could have made for a nice light-hearted teen drama, however, co-writers and directors Francesca Gregorini and Tatiana von Furstenberg lose their story in a sea of different tones. One minute, the piece is more fun loving along the lines of All I Wanna Do, the next it’s catty like Mean Girls, then it shows off a creep factor suggesting one girl might have malicious intentions, but then it turns up its more heartwarming and dramatic side. It’s so confusing, you’re never quite sure how to feel about any of the events or how the characters feel for that matter.
On a narrower level, Tanner Hall comes with a few problems and inconsistencies. The film starts by showing off some gorgeous, albeit meaningless images set to the tune of overly wordy and desperately poetic narration. It feels more like a bunch of fortune cookie fortunes strung together rather than a more natural ode to life lessons learned. Things pick up a bit once Fernanda arrives back at Tanner Hall and the girls come together. Each character maintains her individuality yet there’s such an honest connection between Fernanda, Kate and Lucasta, it’s easy to see why these three girls have come together and stayed together for so long.
On the other hand, there’s a massive gap between the girls and Victoria. While this works well for Victoria and Fernanda, who are at odds, it’s inappropriate for Kate and Lucasta. They’re supposed to be in awe of the newcomer and they are; the problem is that Victoria doesn’t really do anything to earn that respect. Another relationship problem arises with Mr. Middlewood and his wife (Amy Sedaris). The two are just too goofy for this film. In fact, their bits feel more like a Saturday Night Live sketch than a piece of a teen drama. Plus, it’s just not funny. It’s actually rather tough to watch the duo try to work out their sexual differences.
As for our leading lady, Mara does wonders with what she’s given. Fernanda is incredibly subdued, but Mara is such a natural on screen, she still gives off a bold presence. However, her romance with Gio is a little ridiculous right from the start and it’s primarily due to lack of back-story. The plan is that Fernanda is supposed to spend some time off-campus with her mother’s good friend and her husband. We’re just supposed to go with it when this woman’s husband picks Fernanda up from school and claims his wife is too busy to join them? It’s silly as is the fact that we’re expected to go along with it knowing nothing about Gio’s relationship with his wife. The situation becomes intriguingly complicated as the film progresses, but it all suffers due to an inadequate amount of information and poor plot structuring.
The one thing Tanner Hall has going for it through and through is visuals. Everything from the set design to camera moves are on point. Tanner Hall itself is particularly visually stimulating and cinematographer Brian Rigney Hubbard uses it to his advantage playing off architectural angles and structures, offering stimulating vantage points and aesthetic shot framing. The costumes are also impeccable, blending beautifully with the set and just being downright gorgeous on their own.
Still, no imagery has the power to fix the mess that is the Tanner Hall script. There’s certainly something there as despite the messy structure you still care for these characters, but their situations are strung together in such a nonsensical format that the film as a whole, well, just doesn’t feel like one. The piece jumps from problem to problem and not in a way that connects to or builds off one another. What we get are a few moments that pack some power, but an overall experience that’s underwhelming and a bit boring. However, it is clear that both Gregorini and von Furstenberg do know what they’re doing. Should their second efforts be a big step up that growth could continue.