I want to say nice things about this film. That’s the feeling I’m left with as I’m watching it. I believe I understand where the Writer/Director, Sean Nalaboff, is coming from. Hard Sell is “a coming-of-age tale … [about] a high school senior navigating teenage life with his unstable mother.” That’s from the film’s own junket. I, we, understand that movie. But somewhere along the way, someone confused genres and we got something that isn’t sure if it’s that, or a teenage sex comedy and the results are less than harmonious or hilarious.
Director: Sean Nalaboff
Release Date: May 20, 2016 (direct to video)
Skyler Gisondo is Hardy, a high school senior, presumably, who lives alone with his imbalanced mother and sick dog. There’s a father that’s not in the picture, and Hardy is doing it all–his mother can’t be relied on to do even simple things. OK. Despite this, Hardy attends an upscale private school on Long Island’s “Gold Coast.” How this happens, we don’t know, nor do we need to.
The movie is kicked into gear when Hardy, lounging about campus, is approached by a guidance counselor who tells him that colleges love extra-curriculars and maybe he should try volunteering at a soup kitchen. OK. Hardy takes the advice and soon finds himself working side by side with the beautiful Bo (Katrina Bowden). They become friendly and by happenstance Hardy witnesses Bo deal with some young adolescents by taking them into an ally so that they can pay her to flash them. At this point, Hardy, enterprising young man that he is, posits, Bo, why don’t we form a 50/50 partnership in which I arrange for the young men of my school to pay you to flash them. OK.
Here’s the problem though: Bo is a runaway from a psychiatric hospital. Hardy’s mother is extremely unbalanced (with what, we don’t know, nor do we need to). Bo attempted suicide by overdose. Mental illness is not comedic material. Sure, it’s been done and used with success (I’m thinking of Something About Mary which handled it delicately enough as a plot device, not as a major plot element), but when the movie revolves around the subject it’s not so humorous.
It’s easy to understand that a teenage boy who is running the homestead will grasp for straws when trying to save the family dog (a dog that both he and his mother clearly care deeply for). And I can believe that he’d suggest the cash for boobs scenario in his desperation and ignorance. But Bo is apparently post-college and far less ignorant (as is the audience). When Bo flashes some kids as a one-off, we’re dealing in reality. When they enterprise the activity, with minors, on private property, at a school no less, in a movie that approaches its own world with gravitas, not pure comedy, the rules change.
It’s all about context in filmmaking. In a Harry Potter film, I can believe it when people walk through walls, fly broomsticks, and perform incredible feats. It’s called suspension of disbelief, and it’s based on the rules of the film. In a comic book movie, the same principles apply, but when things get too fantastical for the realm, audiences will balk.
Just this past week, I was watching American Pie 2, a comedy that is nothing but. As it with most comedies, it references serious life points, annecdotes, and morales, but they are they to make the story whole, they are not there as the whole story with brevity thrown in. When Stifler, the quintessential college frat boy breaks into a home to confirm that two “chicks are lesbians” he is committing a number of crimes up to and including sexual harassment. It works out though–the women don’t call the police, instead they turn the tables on the college bros and everyone has a great time.
Hard Sell is not American Pie 2, nor is it Risky Business, the film that launched Tom Cruise to stardom as an entrepreneurial teenager turned amateur pimp. And that’s a problem for Hard Sell as it is basically telling that angle of a story but outside the comfortable world of a comedy wherein people can do things with little fear of repercussions, where laughs trump reality and consequences. And even in that world, viewing this film now, with my slightly more mature mind (the film debuted in 2001), I almost have issues with the irresponsibility.
When Hardy is ultimately brought before the eponymous authority figures to ‘fess up’ he launches into an impassioned defense based on his belief that his school is an uninspiring place that confines its students behind walls while teaching them nothing. He does not address his own shortcomings or possible criminal actions and he subsequently walks out the authority figures without anyone raising any objections or fear of police intervention. It’s just not realistic.
I can only imagine that Mr. Nalaboff grappled with the story he wanted to tell and was torn between wanting to tell a serious story about a boy and his mother and their struggles and wanting to tell a comedy in the vein of many that came before it. Only, the drama clearly ended up framing the film, not the comedy, and the comedic elements don’t feel at home, and more troubling is that the film is not self-aware enough to pick up on the jarring nature of the incongruities.
A film dealing with a struggling family, issues of mental health, and suicide cannot open with multiple shots of one of its three main characters escaping from a hospital in an open medical gown showing off her naked body in a pair of hot point panties. It’s sexualizing her when she should not be sexualized. When Hardy jokes that he may be a rapist, it doesn’t come off as humorous. Rape is never funny, but within certain confines the context can desensitize the seriousness of the topic. Here, we are not desensitized, and this lack of awareness appears again and again, as with when a pair of over the top comedic young actors play the role of dramatic high school couple seeking therapy from Bo at the local country club. Their giddy back and forth dialogue is eerily out of place.
Mr. Nalaboff may even have been somewhat aware of the dichotomy, after all, he doesn’t have students paying Bo to sleep with her, only to see her naked. He does tone it down, but all this does is further the sense of unreality: why would these pay hundreds of dollars to see a girl naked when several of them are clearly already sexually active?
In my mind, it comes down to that same unfocused storytelling and perhaps a lack of attention to detail (the Metro North automated voice recordings on the train announcing Hudson on Hastings when we’re purportedly on Long Island was an obvious oversight).
These are heavy criticisms to level at a film, again, that I want to say nice things about. Kristen Chenoweth, as Hardy’s mother, plays the unbalanced individual to a T. Both Gisondo and Bowden are great in their respecitve roles, and I was happy to see them get expanded roles at that, as I’ve enjoyed their work previously. The cinematography has a great, soft touch that would lend to a more developed story, but does make the film reminiscent of adolescence and the experience of going through it. But, ultimately, the film’s not knowing which genre it should live in hurt it more than the cast and filmmaking skill could overcome.