If the idea of a group of high schoolers publishing a newspaper sounds a little behind the times, it never really occurred to the makers of Beware the Gonzo, a dramedy set in the present day that doesn’t seem to know much about the present day. There’s something peculiar about the way it positions its characters—among them Eddie “Gonzo” Gilman (Ezra Miller), leader of a group of writer misfits who just got ousted from his school paper by his bully of an editor, Gavin Reilly (Jesse McCartney)—in a world where the idea of creating a website or even blogging seems out of reach. The film lacks the self-aware fondness that a record collector has for their old-fashioned ways of music listening, but yet it clearly loves physical print and honestly thinks that the technology’s just not there yet for these kids (hasn’t its director-writer Bryan Goluboff seen The Social Network?).
As Beware the Gonzo happily dreams up its nerdy hero’s victories over bullies, school censorship, and feeling like a nobody, it seems to do so from another time. Given that Goluboff based the story on his own high school experiences some decades ago, one of Evie’s (Zoë Kravitz) lines, “newspapers are dead; you’ve got to do it as a website or it’s a joke,” is literally an afterthought for Goluboff. When Eddie confesses to Evie, the hottie that used to date Gavin, that he doesn’t know how to make a website, it’s passed off to the more with-it Evie, and its appearance in the film, despite being used to some effect to complement the school paper’s stories with video, is marginalized in a way that makes the film feel like it’s taking place in the ’90s. But despite Goluboff’s framing of the film in a recent New York Times video as having something to do with the status quo of the newspaper industry, which would make its qualities intentionally relevant, Beware the Gonzo is more of an anachronism, working best as entertainment when it’s light and tame enough for a family-channel audience, like the innocent way Ezra Miller’s squinty, pencil-drawn face contorts with frustration and confusion as he tries expose his student body’s secrets and his school cafeteria’s reason for making the skinny girl puke.
If The Social Network, with its flat, male-weepy story, feels telegenic, Beware the Gonzo, with its similarly linear rise of the nerds and a near total lack of interest in the cinematic, feels even more appropriate and ready for airtime (it actually is available on VOD). What it needs is less fleece and more edge; a sense of danger, like Christian Slater’s pirate radio station in Pump Up the Volume had, but Beware the Gonzo lacks Pump of the Volume’s punch and generational resonance, deficiencies that make it only of marginal serious interest and its comical side too bland.