Genre mashups are always a fun exercise in storytelling, because half the entertainment comes from having to reconcile different narrative ingredients that normally never go together. In this context, high schools are a fantastic setting to place some other kind of story that really isn’t about teenage education at all. Those four years between being a kid and becoming an adult is that great Darwinian ecosystem where people of all walks of life are forced to survive in close proximity under conditions where right, wrong, law and order only faintly recognize the existence of the other. From blissful to bleak, you drop almost any kind of plot into that sort of setting, and you’re already halfway home to a tale worth telling. Especially if it’s a tough little neo-noir detective story called Brick.

The story takes place somewhere in modern-day surburban California, where a heartbroken high schooler named Brendan is trying to get over his ex-girlfriend Emily. One day, he gets a panicked call from her that drops all kind of ominous hints that her life is in danger. But before Brendan can intervene, Emily turns up dead, and Brendan vows to solve her murder. A kind of slacker gumshoe with a talent for taking a beating, Brendan works every source he has for information as he unravels a twisted web of organized crime throughout the school that involves selling a whole lot of heroin and killing anybody who gets in the way. Brendan quickly figures out that the local druglord called the Pin, and an enforcer called Tug are at the heart of things. And so is pretty much everybody else that Brendan has talked to in the last three years, who are all either connected in some way to the Pin’s racket or knows somebody who is. None of this is surprising to Brendan, who seems to have missed all of this merely because it never interested him. But now that it does, he’s going to turn this whole thing upside down, even if it kills him. And you know what? It probably will.

This is a story that takes every tried-and-true aspect of old-school detective novels and puts them into play here in a universe filled with hard-boiled high schoolers and virtually non-existent parents. The only adults we ever see are the Pin’s mother, the school’s vice principal, and the cops. But none of them are really meant to suggest that the doings of these kids are what children are up to when their folks aren’t around. The folks are never around, except as distant reminders of where the boundaries of this world lie, whether it’s abiding by the feckless demands of family, making shaky bargains with corrupt bosses, or trying not to not bring the cops into whatever business you’re doing.

Much of Brick is told through the kind of agile, edgy patter that we get in old detective movies with hangdog private eyes who get in over their head, tearful sirens who bring good people into bad situations, hulking enforcers looking for a face to smash, upper-crust fixers whose power is money, and manipulators of every stripe looking to play an angle on each other. For as much as the characters of Brick talk to each other, the more they say, the less we understand about a conspiracy so tangled that we’re probably not really meant to see every strand of it. But that’s okay, because just listening to Brendan and the Pit and Emily and Dode and Tug and Laura and Brad and all the rest just talk to each other is a pleasure in and of itself. Few movies are enjoyable just on the face of watching them be themselves, but Brick is definitely one of them.

One of the things about this movie is that its youthful players are all far tougher, sneakier and ruthless than seems possible. And while at first we might write this off as the effect of a story in which everyone is a kid with the soul of an adult, there’s something else at work, too. The whole thing becomes a meditation on how nobody in high school is as innocent as they believe, or as adults would like to think. This the time in everyone’s life when anybody who pulled something or crossed a line or broke a rule really learned to hone their craft. And while most of us weren’t involved in drug-fueled murder cases, none of us can pretend that a lesser version of it wasn’t possible a few lockers down from our own, whether we were in a tony academy or P.S. 213. Life is a predatory ecosystem, even in high school. Especially in high school. Not everybody survives it; that’s its first, and harshest, lesson.

Brick’s moment of truth comes right at the end, after Brendan has solved his mystery, manipulated his enemies against each other, and ensured that those responsible for Emily’s death all get what’s coming to them. It’s the sort of ending that celebrates those who are smart enough to see through the scenery, driven enough to ask questions nobody wants answered, tough enough to bounce back after a few beatings, and strong enough to dish out one or two of their own. But the best part of it is the very last scene, where Brendan lays out everything he knows and proves that despite his second-rate demeanor, he really is the smartest kid in the room, if for no reason than everyone else is either dead or off to jail. There is a stinger when the Big Bad drops a revelation on Brendan that is meant to gnaw at him forever. And maybe it does. But that’s beside the point. For a character like Brendan in a world like this, there are no happy endings, because the beginnings were never that great. There’s just class on Monday, and somebody else’s problem to solve. Beats the alternative.

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