Hunter Johnson, Jillian Riley, Kyle Miller
WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY
Driver's Ed Mutiny, the second full-length feature from the folks at Collateral Damage Productions after their 2007 award-winning The Chemistry of Dating, was well on its way to cinematic mediocrity a good 30-45 minutes into the film.
A coming of age story? Really? Another one?
Let me guess. There's a geek, a bad boy and a princess?
Let me guess again. There's a uniting act of mischief? A series of "We're in trouble now" exploits? A romantic spark between the princess and the bad boy? A falling out? A making up? Moments of heart-tugging sentiment designed to make sure the audience knows these are actually good kids?
Let's see. That would be yep, yep, yep, yep, yep and yep.
In other words, Driver's Ed Mutiny was looking like one remarkably cliche' ridden, low-budget version of your standard John Hughes teen melodrama.
Then, it happened.
Bad boy Nick (Hunter Johnson), Princess Cole (Jillian Riley) and geeky Peter (Kyle Miller) didn't just come of age as characters in a film but as bona fide actors in a better than expected indie flick from the Chicago-based Collateral Damage.
Driver's Ed Mutiny follows our three teenagers as they embark on a journey from Chicago to Los Angeles after hijacking their driver's ed car and heading down the legendary Route 66. While the trio travels together, their journeys are distinct and individually motivated by life circumstances, experiences and fundamental needs. As would be true of a John Hughes film, the three teens begin their journey as misfit pieces of an impossible to complete puzzle and yet, by journey's end, they've discovered truths about themselves and unexpected connections with one another.
Shot in HD at 51 locations across 9 states, Driver's Ed Mutiny may very well work because of its grassroots nature and writer/director Brad Hansen's ability to give the film a spontaneous feeling even in the midst of a number of cliche's. While Hansen's script isn't particularly unique in terms of its framework, the dialogue feels natural and without a huge budget to throw in cinematic distractions we're left with three main characters, their words and their relationships with one another.
There's a reason we've seen these three teen stereotypes in virtually every teen dramedy ever made- we either knew these characters growing up and/or we actually were these characters. Their words, ideas, dilemmas and conflicts feel familiar to us, and that familiarity always wins out over any concerns about predictability or cliche's.
Seriously, how many of us aren't still processing our teen years?
In the early stages of Driver's Ed Mutiny, it appeared that this trio of actors might very well be struggling with the material, in particular, with the more emotionally revealing scenes. Hunter Johnson's Nick was more irritating than bad, Jillian Riley's Cole evoked a sort of Molly Ringwald lite and Kyle Miller's Peter felt like a distant cousin to Michael Oher from The Blind Side.
Bad performances? Not particularly. They simply didn't feel relaxed and natural and, as a result, their journey didn't feel particularly convincing. However, in a sense of timing that could best be summed up as art imitating life the trio began to relax not long after hitting the road and the chemistry developed, the conversations felt genuine and the relationships began to solidify. Suddenly, Johnson's Nick felt like the wounded bad boy while it was almost impossible to not ache for the longing felt by Riley's Cole and, as Peter, Kyle Miller began to shade the socially awkward young man with subtle layers of psychological mystery.
Suddenly, this cliche' ridden and formulaic little film developed an involving story with characters who genuinely mattered.
Kudos to D.P. Jenny Stolte for camera work that nicely capitalized on the unique charm of Route 66 while not losing sight of the film's human subjects, along with John Kasiewicz's original score. Driver's Ed Mutiny also features a stellar companion sountrack assembled by music supervisor Evan LaFlamme.
Driver's Ed Mutiny may play out like an ever so slightly new take on a familiar theme, but it does so with a tremendous degree of heart, humor and refreshing humanity backed by a young cast of actors from the Chicago film scene and a production crew that manages to create a look and feel that transcends the film's modest budget.
Driver's Ed Mutiny is currently on the film festival circuit and seeking distribution on a wider scale once its festival run is complete.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic