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Balancing act

Brick straddles adult and teen worlds well, but violence tips it over

Independently produced and distributed films face an uphill battle under the best circumstances. Films as hard to categorize as Brick face an even greater challenge. Though it won the Special Jury Prize for "Originality of Vision" at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, Brick only showed up in a few art-house theaters before arriving on DVD this month.

First-time director Rian Johnson's film certainly lives up to its claim on originality, though. In Brick (rated R for violence and drug content), Johnson sets classic film noir mystery against the backdrop of a modern California high school.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt (above) fills the role of the gumshoe as Brendan, a moody loner who eats lunch alone behind his San Clemente, Calif., high school. A cry for help from and subsequent disappearance of his former girlfriend, Emily (Emilie de Ravin), sends Brendan deep into the high-school underworld of drugs and dealers. Along the way, Brendan encounters characters familiar to both film noir and high school-the femme fatale (a popular rich girl), the brain (a thick glasses-wearing loner who feeds information to Brendan), the thick-skulled thug (a dropout known as "Tug"), and the crime kingpin (a 26-year-old drug dealer who lives with his mom). The ease with which these characters exist in both worlds suggests that the idea of setting a Dashiell Hammett--inspired mystery in a Southern California high school is not so far-fetched after all.

Johnson largely succeeds in pulling off this audacious balancing act without descending into parody: The film is a smart high-school drama and an engrossing mystery. But he stumbles a bit in taking the film too far into the harsh violence and degenerate characters one expects from an adult crime drama, but seem like a stretch for high school. The unconventional coupling would work better-and the film would be easier to recommend-if Johnson had shown a little more restraint in the violent final section.