November 1, 2007 | Comments ()

By Dustin Rowles | Underappreciated Gems | November 1, 2007 |


High school is hard. I don’t care who you are: Band geek, mathlete, burnout, jocktard, or prom queen. Psychologically, there is no three-to-four year period in most people’s lives as harrowing and emotionally traumatizing as those the hours between 8 and 3, Monday through Friday, three seasons a goddamn year. That the most of us can muster the mental courage it takes to wake up every morning and subject ourselves to the daily firing squad, the humiliation pratfalls, and the torment of super-heightened self-awareness is a testament to the great unrecognized fortitude of teenagedom. And if you were a fat kid in high school, God bless you, you didn’t have a prayer. And if you were keenly self-aware and fat: Jeezum Crow. I was a fat kid in junior high, and I’d sooner endure the meth-and-homelessness hazing of rumspringa than experience those two years again. Thank God for the divine confluence of puberty and malnourishment that allowed me to shed half my body weight and replace it with gangliness, ribcage sprawl and chest-hair sprigs.

Angus — a 1995 film adapted from a Chris Crutcher short story by Jill Gordon, a former “Wonder Years” and “My So-Called Life” scribe and directed by Patrick Read Johnson — is about Angus Bethune (Charlie Talbert), a tubby junior in high school who was ostensibly named after a cow. Decent at football and blessed with intelligence, Angus would’ve been “willing to swap it all for a little physical beauty.” The poor guy grew up with only one friend — his Booger, Troy (Chris Owen), who brags as he snorts nasal spray, “I’m swallowing snot! You know what? It doesn’t taste that gross.”

Both Angus and Troy have suffered the bully taunts of Rick Sandford (James I. Don’t. Want. Your. Life. Van Der Beek, pre-“Dawson’s”) since grade school, though unlike other cinematic nerds of the day, Angus had enough girth to fight back. Unfortunately, every time he broke Rick’s nose, which was often, Rick’s luck inexplicably improved immeasurably. Rick is your typical douchebag high-school quarterback dating the captain of the cheerleading squad, who just so happens to be Angus’ lifelong crush, the sweetly plain Melissa Lafevre (Ariana Richards). She “was that girl that just made you ache because you know she was put on the Earth out of your reach only to make you feel bad.” (Rick’s best friend in the movie, amusingly enough, is played by Kevin Connelly — “E” in “Entourage.”)

Rick, who has a hard-on for humiliating Angus (at one point, he steals Angus’ undies and hangs them from a flag pole) one day decides — as a joke — to get Angus voted the king of the Winter Ball, a feat that — while mortifying for Angus — also ultimately offers him the opportunity to dance with Melissa. The lion’s share of the movie, then, deals with Angus’ self-torment, his personal struggle over whether he ought to rise above the joke and take his moment by the balls or cower in a corner, transfer to the magnet school for geeks, and pass up the opportunity to dance with Melissa.

The plot mostly follows traditional teen comedy conventions; there’s nothing particularly unexpected about how it unfolds. Angus — wearing a plum tuxedo that makes him look like “Moby Grape” — is doubly humiliated at the Winter Ball when Rick unveils a video of Angus teaching himself to dance with an inflatable doll. Then, of course, Angus gets his expected comeuppance with a rousing, “What is normal?” speech, ultimately proving that his “Bethune Theory” applies to the high-school ecosystem — that is, if an aberration is powerful enough to resist the system that surrounds it, it can force the entire system to change to accommodate it. Troy decks Rick, and Angus triumphantly walks Melissa home from the dance, leaving the film’s Stan Gable licking his wounds, face down on the dance floor. It’s crowd pleasing as all hell.

I wouldn’t call Angus a great film; in fact, the television poignancy can get a little heavy-handed at times. But, there are a couple of remarkable performances, particularly Charlie Talbert’s ability to toe the line between self-deprecating and plain pathetic, as well as one of George C. Scott’s final roles, here as Angus’s grandfather, whose modest advice is to “laugh with them so they can’t laugh at you,” and “screw ‘em,” a wise refrain all high-schoolers should abide by (though none, to my knowledge, ever have). In addition, the soundtrack is gold — Love Spit Love, Ash, The Muffs, a Peter Gabriel song that will make you quake, and even a pitch perfect Mazzy Star tune for the Winter Ball’s king and queen dance.

But what I love about Angus is that, unlike any other film of the high-school, coming-of-age subgenre, it best captures the feeling — the struggle — of waking up each morning and subjecting yourself to the high-school experience. Angus is part Can’t Hardly Wait, part Revenge of the Nerds, and part Better off Dead, but unlike all the other teenage films of its ilk, Angus sports an honest-to-goodness fat kid as its hero. This is not a guy that gets a magical makeover, nor a modestly attractive person slumming it to play the part of geek or nerd. He is not all that — hell, he’s not even Superbad. Angus is a real-life lost cause, and that’s what makes this movie different than, say, Breakfast Club or Sixteen Candles — Charlie Talbert wasn’t going to play an overweight unattractive kid in one film and turn around and play a superstar high-school quarterback in the next one (a feat even dweeb king Anthony Michael Hall could pull off). This was an obese kid playing an obese kid, and there was something in just that that made Angus so modestly funny, so heart-breaking, and so motherfucking honest. And more than anything, perhaps, is that Angus is unflinchingly earnest — it hits all the usual notes you’d expect from a teen comedy, but there is not an ounce of cool, or hipster, or indie underneath it — it’s anti-cool in a way that’s not even cool in its antitheticality. It’s just a mainstream movie about a fat kid — not a caricature of a fat kid and not a Martha Dumptruck punch line — just a real goddamn fat kid who struggles everyday to survive high school.

And that’s probably why no one ever saw it.

——————

A couple of notes: 1) For those who have seen Angus and wondered what Charlie Talbert looks like now, check it out.

And 2) the director of Angus, Patrick Read Johnson, has a semi-autobiographical flick supposedly coming out this year, 5-25-77 (a date some of you may recognize). Do yourself a favor and check out the trailer. There are some of you who will completely lose your shit. Trust me.

Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives with his wife and son in Ithaca, New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.

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