Lifetime Review: 'Perfect High'
Bella Thorne is a dancer with drug dependency in this superbly acted Very Special Lifetime Movie.
At Lakewood High, Amanda Walker (Bella Thorne) has a lot going for her. A shining star on Lakewood's Rhythm Chasers dance team, Amanda is thrilled when she learns that her squad has been invited to an exclusive audition. But this ambitious high schooler's life quickly changes when she injures her knee during a pep rally performance. This attracts the attention of classmate Riley Taft (Daniela Bobadilla), who asks for some of the pain killers Amanda was prescribed. Amanda obliges, and it's a decision that ends up drawing her into Riley's friend circle, which consists of Riley's brother Carson (Israel Broussard) and her boyfriend Nate (Ross Butler).
Over movie nights and late-night hangouts, Amanda gets further pulled into the trio's habit of using and sharing prescription drugs. While it's all fun and games at first, the pills begin to take over the teens' lives. As their shared addiction grows and their withdrawal pains worsen, Amanda tries to keep everything together. But what will be left of Amanda and her friends when they hit rock bottom?
In anticipation of its sequel Imperfect High starring Sherri Shepherd and Nia Sioux, I thought I would go back and revisit the original film Perfect High and see how it holds up after six years. It's pretty surreal to look back on this film now that three of its four lead stars have gone on to be in more high-profile projects. Regardless, all four leads give top-notch performances, which quickly get you invested in their characters and the relationships they form. While you know going in that Amanda's friendship with Riley, Nate, and Carson is going to lead her down a dark path, you'll understand why she's drawn to them. The trio is an outwardly quirky bunch whose drug use is initially the recreational variety. By the time they begin turning overtly toxic, Amanda is too hooked on the drugs to cut ties. And with all three of Amanda's new friends being charmingly played by their actors, you're liable to enjoy their company too--even if you realize from the start how much of a bad influence they are.
The story is a slow boil, with most of the action comes from seeing the four teens fall further down the rabbit hole of addiction. As they upgrade to harder drugs and start struggling to keep the withdrawal pains away, you see the impact it has on them. While Amanda tries to get herself and her friends back on track, it's clear she's as in over her head as the others. If you've seen any of those old-school anti-drug PSAs or TV movies, you're not in for any surprises here. But what Perfect High lacks in innovation, it makes up for with the little details. While instances of try-hardy teen dialogue stick out, they don't get too numerous. The social media angle turns out to be a nice touch, starting out innocuous before turning into a chronicle of Amanda's descent. Another nice touch is having a music box serve as Amanda's eventual drug stash location. Hearing that twinkly music play as Amanda counts out bills or scrounge through drug baggies makes for some sobering symbolism. The film also boasts some nice directorial/cinematographic work and a rocking soundtrack befitting the movie's atmosphere.
But as hinted at before, the characters and their performers are what give Perfect High most of its appeal. Amanda is a likable and sympathetic heroine, with Bella Thorne and the makeup crew working together to show how Amanda's addiction affects her physically and mentally. Her enabler friends, clueless parents and vaguely jealous teammates only add to the poor girl's problems. While she's busy going downhill, everyone around Amanda seems too distracted to see it. Daniela Bobadilla and Ross Butler bring raucous energy to Riley and Nate. Even when they're at their lowest points, you'll be unable to resist their charms and feel for them as their fun times turn sour. Israel Broussard is more lowkey lovable as angsty film buff Carson, with Broussard and Thorne having some nice chemistry as Carson and Amanda bond and fall for each other. Altogether, the quartet of actors meshes well. You'll smile at the kids' fast camaraderie as much as you'll cringe seeing that same friendship lead them all down the same self-destructive path.
WARNING: SPOILERS BELOW
As such, Perfect High's conclusion is sure to have your heart feeling a little heavy. Unlike schmaltzier cautionary tales about drug abuse, the film ends with three sad endings to go along with the happy one. Amanda ends the movie in rehab and on the road to recovery. But Riley is dead, Nate is still using to cope with the loss and is now potentially a dealer (Butler is heartbreaking in Nate's last few scenes), and Carson has been packed off to Florida without getting a chance to reconcile with Amanda. The viewer can only hope that Carson's father learns a lesson from his daughter's death and gets his son the help he needs. Even with the last shot being of Amanda and Alexis taking a selfie together, Perfect High's final moments don't let you forget the tragedy of all that's happened. Amanda explains it best herself: Nate, Riley, and Carson were all generally good people who lost themselves to their addiction.
As for compelling non-addicted teen characters, Jasmine Skye Sarin and Matreya Fedor stand out as Amanda's dance team friends Alexis and Brooke. Both actors give solid performances as unexpectedly layered characters. Brooke starts out acting like your typical snobby high school rival type, with Fedor's delivery matching up with the archetype. But over the course of the film, you might find yourself in Brooke's corner in a few aspects. Not only does she compliment Amanda just as much as she criticizes her, but her criticisms have weight to them. Amanda's constant posting about her injury does become a bit obnoxious and Brooke's stern attitude when leading the Rhythm Chasers doesn't become needlessly harsh. Alexis, meanwhile, appears to be an adorable best friend to Amanda. But as the film goes on, Sarin plays Alexis in a way that makes you wonder if she's really that good of a friend after all. Amanda accusing Alexis of trying to replace her might sound like it's just the drugs talking at first. But if you pay attention to some of Alexis's subtler behaviors throughout the movie, you'll see how there might be some truth to Amanda's wild claims.
This aspect of Alexis goes underexplored, joining the implied parental favoritism that seems to be going on in the Walker household. Some scenes seem to suggest that Katherine and Dean Walker are more lenient/praising to Amanda than they are towards her younger brother Robbie. Regardless, TV movie regulars Venus Terzo and Peter Benson give fine performances as Katherine and Dean, even though they're stuck playing hopelessly ineffectual parents. In addition to their treatment of Robbie, Katherine and Dean are horrendously blind to Amanda's downward spiral. Even when Katherine starts to pick up on it, she does almost nothing to confirm what's going on with her daughter or help her through it. Lucia Walters's Coach Yost isn't much better, but she's at least quicker to recognize Amanda has a serious problem and suggest she see a counselor. Ryan Grantham has his awkward moments as Robbie Walker, with his better moments coming whenever Robbie drops the annoying little brother schtick to show that he really does love his sister.
(Sidenote: the heated arguments between Robbie and his mother are a lot more awkward to watch now in light of recent events...)
While far from groundbreaking in its take on teenage substance abuse, Perfect High knows how to keep you watching. The moderately predictable script has some appreciable strokes of depth to be found within its folds. More importantly, the well-balanced pacing and central characters you grow to care for will have your attention locked in, even during the slower parts of the film. Amanda's knee injury is the first hill on a rollercoaster of emotional ups and downs, with the viewer getting securely strapped in so they can come along for the bumpy ride.
Score: 7.5 out of 10 stylist aspirations.