Lifetime Review: 'Imperfect High'
This sequel's recycled plot and characters keep it from rising to the same heights as the original.
In the midst of her junior year, high schooler Hanna Brooks (Nia Sioux) gets some unexpected news: her mother Deborah (Sherri Shepherd) has received a job promotion that will require them to move to Chicago. Upset at leaving her home and all her friends behind, Hanna struggles to adjust to the city and her new school. That new school is none other than Lakewood High, the same school that was rocked by the death of popular student Riley Taft--the result of a heroin overdose after her friends' habit of doing drugs together resulted in her developing an ill-fated addiction.
Soon after arriving at Lakewood, Hanna makes some new friends of her own: handsome popular guy Dylan Collins (Gabriel Darku) and artistic outcast Rob Walker (Anthony Timpano)--the younger brother of Riley's surviving addict friend Amanda. It's through meeting Dylan that Hanna is introduced to his friends Rose and Blake (Ali Skovbye and Samuel Braun) and their shared Xanax habit. After taking a few pills herself, Hanna decides to get her own Xanax prescription to cope with her anxiety. But over time, Hanna's dependency on Xanax grows, much to the detriment of her academics and her relationship with her mother. With Lakewood history repeating itself, can Deborah save her daughter before her addiction ruins her life?
It's ironic that Perfect High's sequel should replace the first word of the 2015 movie's title with its antonym. "Imperfect" is the ideal word to describe Imperfect High, due largely to how the movie's plot makes it feel less like a sequel and more like a remake. The film starts out looking like it might be doing something different than the first movie. Hanna Brooks is a shy wallflower with an anxiety disorder as opposed to the more outgoing Amanda Walker. There's also a huge amount of potential to be found in Lakewood High being Hanna's new school. The lingering effects of Riley's overdose are given some attention in the first act, with a brief focus being placed on the school's "Just Say No"-esque efforts to combat drug abuse. As you can see from the above synopsis, those efforts are unsuccessful. The fact that Hanna and her friends can do drugs and meet with their dealer on school property without getting caught even suggests that Lakewood has gotten even more lax in the wake of Riley Taft's death.
But after a few overwrought rants from Rob Walker, this potential plot element is forgotten about in favor of rehashing the original's story beats. If you've seen Perfect High, you'll know exactly how the movie will play out once Hanna joins Dylan's circle of friends. These friends even act as easily identifiable expies of the friend group from Perfect High: Dylan=Carson, Rose=Riley, and Blake=Nate. Their characterizations are almost the same as their 2015 counterparts, with only minor alterations. As such, despite the solid efforts of their actors, none of these characters feel as compelling as the ones they're copying. Samuel Braun's Blake isn't nearly as memorable as Ross Butler's Nate while Samuel Darku and Ali Skovbye do a better job of injecting some authentic charm into Dylan and Rose. They at least do enough to make it believable that the reserved Hanna would want to be friends with them. But since none of them are on the same level as the Perfect High cast, Imperfect High's formulaic story is harder to get invested in.
Then there's the matter of the returning Robbie Walker, now going by Rob and played by Anthony Timpano (for obvious reasons, Ryan Grantham couldn't return to reprise the role). While it's cool of Imperfect High to connect itself to the original movie, Rob's return reveals that he hasn't changed for the better in the last few years. Not only does he still have a whiny streak, but he's grown up to be one of those annoyingly cynical types who use their self-proclaimed "anti-conformity" as an excuse to be a judgmental tool all the time. While the movie seems to want us to think Rob is being isolated and bullied because of his sister's past, we see hardly any evidence to this. Considering all the snide remarks he throws Hanna's way for her social media use and her taste in art, I'd say it's more likely his classmates just got tired of his self-aggrandizing nonsense. Anthony Timpano gives a decent enough performance, so it's unfortunate that he should be stuck playing such an annoying character.
WARNING: Spoilers Below
Then all of a sudden, Rob is conveniently at the same restaurant during Hanna's third-act overdose, with Narcan at the ready to swoop in and save the day. After that, the movie seems to backpedal on Rob's character and make him out to be some wise savior who was right all along. He abruptly drops his pessimistic attitude when visiting Hanna in rehab, sermonizing about addiction and acting like his toxic cynicism was restricted to "just the world in general" (somehow, that doesn't include people) despite all the evidence to the contrary. The finale also neglects to do or say anything in regards to how Dylan, Rose, and Blake are all still addicted. Unlike Perfect High, which leaves the fates of Carson and Nate ambiguous to illustrate the tragedy of addiction, Imperfect High seems perfectly content with leaving the fates of Hanna's former friends completely unaddressed. It almost feels like the movie's saying, "Yeah, these kids may still be hooked on drugs...but Dylan and Rose were sucky friends to Hanna, so who cares what happens to them?" It's especially sick once you remember how Dylan and Rose's addictions seem heavily linked to the relationships they have with their neglectful (and in Rose's case, drug-addled) parents.
At least Nia Sioux was lucky enough to have a consistently written protagonist to play for her first Lifetime movie. Sioux makes Hanna Brooks an easy protagonist to empathize with, especially as her addiction and stress simultaneously worsen. Anyone with experience dealing with anxiety or panic attacks is sure to feel for Hanna as Sioux throws herself into her character's intense lows. Sherri Shepherd brings tons of charm and lovable mom energy to Deborah Brooks, a character who is miles ahead of Perfect High's Katherine Walker in terms of proactivity. Deborah is far from perfect and does go through a period of not realizing how badly her daughter is falling apart. But she's never too in the dark about how the move to Chicago has affected Hanna, with Shepherd selling Deborah as a loving mother trying to be there for her troubled child. From what we can piece together about Amanda's offscreen struggle to stay sober, that's more than what can be said about Katherine or Dean Walker...
(That brings to mind another potential talking point that Imperfect High doesn't explore: how Amanda's continued battle with addiction speaks to how ineffective some rehabilitation programs/clinics can be.)
With prescription drug abuse being on the rise among teens according to SAMHSA, Imperfect High covers a topical subject matter in need of exposure. It's just too bad it couldn't be as engaging as its 2015 predecessor. While the actors give it their best efforts, the retreaded storyline and unoriginal characters (including one major player who's liable to grate nerves) leave them with limited room to shine. It's worth watching in your downtime and has an important message attached to it, but if you're a fan of the Bella Thorne-helmed original, prepare to be let down by this unimaginative follow-up.
Score: 6 out of 10 wooden spoon bathroom keys.