It’s not hard to see why Tanner Hall found no distribution love for nearly two years after its 2009 Toronto Film Festival premiere. But it’s also no mystery why it finally came out on DVD in December 2011: The only reason anyone will ever rent this movie is to see Rooney Mara before she suited up to play Lisbeth Salander in David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. And truth be known, keeping infamous badass Lisbeth Salander in mind while sitting through Tanner Hall actually makes the movie a lot more entertaining.
Tanner Hall is a coming-of-age dramedy — that is, it makes awkward stabs at both comedy and drama — about four girls at a tony New England boarding school. There’s the mean girl, the sexpot, the nerd and the smart one. Make that ostensibly smart, for our heroine Fernanda (Mara) makes some bad decisions, and the script can’t be bothered to flesh out her character enough to elucidate why she does the things she does — or make us care.
Co-written and co-directed by Tatiana von Furstenberg and Francesca Gregorini in their feature debut, Tanner Hall follows each girl’s subplot as well as the troubled marriage of school administrator Mrs. Middlewood (Amy Sedaris), and her English teacher husband (Chris Kattan).
The multiple storylines about schoolgirl angst, as well as the gauzy lensing and the constant pop tunes welling up on the soundtrack make Tanner Hall strongly resemble a CW pilot. The sudsy overlapping plotlines could easily launch 13 episodes of farm-league Gossip Girl, so it’s no wonder their resolution in the 99-minute movie feels hasty and inconclusive. You’d swear the film ends when it does because the battery in the camera ran out and the filmmakers simply gave up.
The movie opens with each girl being dropped off in front of the school. Fernanda is happy to get away from her awkward, needy mother and reunite with her best buds, irrepressible blonde hottie Kate (Brie Larson, who, like Mara, soon went on to better things from here) and the endearingly nerdy Lucasta (Amy Ferguson). New to the school is sulky blonde princess Victoria (Georgia King), who wants to be queen bee and soon sets various intrigues in motion by lying and stealing Fernanda’s friends away from her. Gradually it emerges that Victoria is a troubled soul, given to cutting herself in the showers late at night. The problem here, we learn, is not mean girls but bad mommies.
Further complications arise from the way Mr. Middlewood (Kattan), your standard-issue milquetoast English teacher, not so secretly lusts after Kate. Fixated on his student, the hapless teech can’t get it up with his randy wife, despite her tireless, fumbling efforts to arouse him. Kattan and Sedaris play these numbingly drawn-out scenes straight, and it’s hard to tell what the filmmakers were going for. The effete, blithering English teacher; the sex-starved, middle-aged shrew; these characters are one-note stereotypes, so there’s no pathos to their plight. And yet as farce the scenes don’t even prompt a smile from the viewer.
An equally flaccid storyline follows Fernanda’s affair with thirtysomething dude Gio (Tom Everett Scott), a perpetually unshaven, quasi hipster whose wife is well along in her pregnancy. I was hoping this subplot might allow the female filmmakers to skewer a standard aging-guy fantasy, but that would require a point of view on the material.
Instead, the scenes between Gio and Fernanda are so sketchily written that it’s hard to fathom why the latter enters into an affair with overgrown indie boy Gio. Poised and mature, Fernanda hardly seems like an impressionable schoolgirl who’d be flattered by an older guy’s attention.
Thus during the whole romance between Fernanda and Gio, we wait for her to wise up and ditch the guy. Typical of Tanner Hall as a whole, the only suspense lies in seeing how many false notes will be struck in each scene, as if the screenwriters were only on a nodding acquaintance with human behavior. Drama is hardly Gregorini and von Furstenberg’s forte; if they evince a real talent, it’s for creating dreamy, gauzy tableaux for their female leads. To judge from the evidence at hand, their true medium might be not feature films but fashion shoots.
In this they’re helped by Mara, who exudes sophistication (perhaps too much so, for the role of Fernanda), and who has screen presence, as subsequent, only-in-Hollywood big breaks make clear. Throughout Tanner Hall, this viewer couldn’t help thinking, don’t let any of this get you down, Fernanda — soon you’ll be tearing around Sweden on a motorcycle, tasing older dudes who get in your way, or stopping them dead just with your piercing stare.