A class-five pity party so unbearably condescending and unconvincing that it might just make you run out and buy an “I’m With Mitt” T-shirt, Brian Dannelly’s Struck by Lightning makes an inadvertent but hugely compelling pro-bullying argument. That’s to say there’s a noticeable lack of genuine threat to Carson Phillips, the “protagonist” of this would-be high school dramedy who, promisingly, is literally struck by lightning as the film opens and then goes about cattily detailing his sad-sack existence up until that moment.
Carson is played by Chris Colfer of Fox’s popular musical-comedy series Glee, and he also wrote the script for the film and served as producer. And though the filmmaking is competent, for the most part, it must be said that the writing is appalling and registers as little more than a cobbled together archive of PSAs and “The More You Know” spots, handled with the subtlety of a swinging sledgehammer. The film might do well to be renamed Good Intentions Paving Co. before its inevitable small-market release.
Indeed, Colfer’s Carson is besieged on all sides by what he perceives to be the very essence of American ignorance: cheerleaders, jocks, potheads, theater dweebs, bad parents, affluent so-and-sos, closeted gays, philanderers, shitty teachers, and a few downright bitches. Carson is put into opposition with these philistines as he attempts to put together a literary magazine, which will help ensure his entrance into Northwestern and start the road to his dream job: the editor of The New Yorker. His pill-popping mother (Allison Janney) thinks he’s abandoning her; his deadbeat father (Dermot Mulroney) is utterly ambivalent about him; his counselor (Angela Kinsey) wants him to go to community college so that she can get a free juice cup (don’t ask, I beg you).
They all have their crippling flaws, each one of which is written on their forehead and then reiterated without a hint of nuance or understanding throughout the film, but Carson is essentially flawless and, even more to the point, has a severe lack of vulnerability. Despite Colfer’s characterization of nearly every character, including Carson’s bestie (Rebel Wilson), as inarguably intellectually beneath Carson, we never encounter a scene of him being socially ridiculed, facing genuine humiliation, or even making a mistake. The big crime in high school, according to Colfer’s script, isn’t abuse or psychological detriment, but rather being ignored despite possibly being talented.
The narrative is powered, more or less, by a plan hatched by Carson to blackmail a handful of students, each one bluntly characterized by a stereotypical clique, to get some writing from various sources into his literary magazine. Excluding the fact that forcing anyone to do something they don’t want to do and don’t have to do is, by definition, an act of bullying, this supposedly inspiring and humorous tactic breaks up what’s otherwise an ideal scenario: all cliques getting along, engaging in discussions and arguments, and accepting their differences. As much as Dannelly and Colfer might want him to be a much put-upon pariah, in reality he’s a ferocious narcissist, regurgitating innumerable, deplorable one-liners. So, when something actually damaging happens to Carson in the film’s finale, we’re not moved to give an iota of feeling, not even in his supposedly touching scenes with his grandmother (Polly Bergen).
It should come as little surprise that Colfer wrote this story from a personal place, but there’s no sense of personal weight in the film. Seeing as Colfer has admitted to being bullied in high school, it’s hard to imagine why he omitted any sense of tragedy or sadness in his script, obliterating any suffering, lest we include the imaginary sort. And if, perhaps, Colfer’s anger over the pain of his formative years is to be felt in the lack of personification in any of these characters, it can only be said that his fury is never even remotely conveyed successfully. The result is something far worse than the routine white-as-yacht-shoes high school dramedy with its redundant formulas, gross-out gags, and tedious romances, seeing as those films, in principal, praise an ideal of universal inclusion. In comparison, the fact that Struck by Lightning doesn’t end with a place card saying “You’re Welcome” or “I Forgive You” might be the humblest act the film can cop to.