There is no denying that the whimsical "Spork" is an underdog story that you really want to root for. Even with its over-the-top performances, rampant quirkiness, and confrontational humor, it really abides by every expected mean girl versus misfit cliche that you can imagine. Yet with its amateur and homemade appeal and its willingness to wallow in bad taste heaven, it feels like a middle school variation of John Waters' "Hairspray" (you know, prior to the musical version). I mean that as a compliment, sort of. The film lacks a professional polish that might make it a mainstream crossover. It just seems so inexpensive, so underground, but I'm confident that was the filmmaker's intention. It embraces its badness and tackiness with zealous glee. Some people will find that outrageously entertaining, some might find the picture garish and obvious. I'll admit, I laughed in equal proportion to the amount of time I spent rolling my eyes. I might have more whole-heartedly embraced the lunacy if the screenplay had ever veered from its preordained (and very familiar) plot course. A few surprises would have been nice amidst the inventive combination of bad taste and wistfulness.
At the heart of the movie is Savannah Stehlin as Spork. Stehlin has a pleasing deadpan as the bedraggled and relatively lifeless middle school outcast. Taunted and just trying to survive, she must contend with the regular tribulations of junior high existence. There is a ruthless clique of mean girls, a sexually ambiguous love interest, and a sassy neighbor who pushes Spork to participate more fully in the world. At home, Spork lives an impoverished life with her brother and imagines being reunited with her dead mother. She sees her opportunity to make her dreams come true with a school dance competition and, as unlikely as it seems, she faces the challenge head-on. Will pluck and determination be rewarded? Will the mean girls get their comeuppance? Is it possible for Spork to succeed and be accepted? While I won't reveal any surprises--I suspect you'll already know the answers.
With every actor embracing loud caricatures of existing stereotypes, it sometimes seems challenging to get to the real heart of "Spork." And yet, as the movie progresses, we do get to see the truth behind some of the characters. A late scene between Spork and her brother seems ill-fitting with the rest of the outrageousness, but it is an unexpectedly nuanced moment that adds a needed dimension. Of all the actors, it is the ridiculously upbeat Sydney Park (of course named Tootsie Roll) that manages to steal her every scene. I don't know that I always believed her, but she executed her lines and attitude with hysterical precision. If you like these underdog stories, there are easy reasons to recommend "Spork." I, personally, wished the screenplay had been more focused on character but I still had a relatively good time. KGHarris, 1/12.