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SXSW 2022 ‘The Prank’ Review: More Silly Than Thrilling

SXSW
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The Prank, directed by Maureen Bharoocha from a script by Becca Flinn-White and Zak White, tries its best to be a lot of things: part-high school comedy, part-thriller, part-meta commentary on cancellation and the digital age. Unfortunately, despite its best efforts the film doesn’t totally end up resonating on most any of these points. The Prank follows nerdy overachiever Ben (Connor Kalopsis) and his ne’er-do-well buddy Tanner (Ramona Young) as they frame their cruel high school science teacher, Mrs. Wheeler (Rita Moreno), for the disappearance of a student. What starts out as an attempt at a prank that they assume will blow over due to an easily bored student body turns into a media frenzy before taking a darker turn. 

In terms of narrative, The Prank straddles the line somewhere between structurally pedestrian — our protagonists plot goes sorta to plan, then not at all to plan, then really not to plan — and overcomplicated, with one too many plot twists regarding the nefarious nature of Mrs. Wheeler. Plot points seem rather forcefully, inorganically plugged in, and there’s just a general sense of stiffness and discombobulation to the flow of the film. 

Mrs. Wheeler and her villainous aura are perhaps some of the only aspects of the movie that truly work. Moreno’s performance is fun, bordering on campy in its self-aware, villainous status as both students and staff alike shrink in her presence, and as she refuses to offer even a shred of kindness. The occasional laugh comes from the fact that she is so universally loathed that the entire town is excited about these claims of murder, as the journalists reporting the presumed crime and the town cops investigating the claims gleefully look to punish the teacher that they hated most in high school. 

The Prank tries very, very hard to keep up with the times. It falls into the pitfall that so many modern high school comedies do, trying its darndest to sound hip but failing in how effortful it is. Tanner and Ben’s plan to prank Mrs. Wheeler is entirely digital, handled by some unexplained coding on Tanner’s part and a collection of memes being sent out and created among the student body. None of these really feel reflective of the current digital zeitgeist (although that’s not totally The Prank’s fault — trends change far too fast to be adequately encapsulated even in an incredibly recent film). The Prank attempts at what it assumes is teen speak, which often ends up falling flat to the point of near cringeworthy (“Why is she hashtagging?” someone asks incredulously at one point). The very nature of the plan, to falsely accuse someone of a crime and the gleeful pile-on of a public waiting to attack, feels like some sort of commentary on the nature of cancel culture and mob mentality, but the many complicated plot twists (especially when the final act of the film turns to something more out of a thriller or horror comedy) make it so it’s impossible to even really tell what the point of it all is. 

The Prank feels less like it is melding genres or making a statement and more like it’s simply smushing together a disjointed collection of tropes and ideas. The Prank tries its best to play with and twist familiar tropes, but unfortunately falls flat. 

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