Written by and starring Chris Colfer, "Struck by Lightning" is a particularly bitter look at the life of one high school student who doesn't quite fit in with the rest of the world. It'd be easy enough to write the film off as a coming of age misstep, but no one comes of age. In fact, no lessons are learned at all, with characters cozily remaining unchanged from the first few off-putting minutes through the purposely relentless ending. A bold move like that requires big laughs or big shocks to sustain, and "Struck by Lightning" has neither.
We're introduced posthumously to a grumbly teenage wunderkind, Carson (Colfer), who is struck by lightning and dies immediately. The Carson-narrated film steps back to explain Carson's struggles with being the smartest kid in his whole tiny town, his dealings with his depressed alcoholic mother (Allison Janney), vacant, self-centered father (Dermot Mulroney), best friend and confidante (Rebel Wilson), Alzheimer's-affected grandmother and various idiotic classmates. Carson wants to be a journalist and eventually bullies and blackmails his schoolmates into taking part in his literary journal in order to be more appealing to colleges and struggles with life in a small conservative town.
Hoping against hope that sneering sarcasm is still cool, the film is meandering and fairly bitter, sanctimoniously convinced that it needs no heroes and has nothing at stake. Carson is mostly mean and relentlessly unkind to those around him, and the whole thing feels, at times, as if it sort of got away from Colfer. Carson loves reading and writing and wants to be an accomplished journalist and editor but can't seem to find a single other person at his school or life who feels the same way. In real life, Carson would have given up long ago at attempting to force his angry sarcasm on those around him and retreated into the warm, welcoming arms of the Tumblr or Reddit communities, but because lessons are repeated until they are learned, he keeps trying to get people who don't care, to care.
Allison Janney's bitter, depressed, angry mother character is a frightening one, and the actress certainly makes the most of the limited role, coming off as far more interesting than anyone else in the film. Writer and star Chris Colfer is known for his formidable acting and singing work in the TV show "Glee" and his performance here is fairly solid, though perhaps the level of intimacy with the material has caused some blindness as to its weaknesses. Filling out the rest of the film, there's a host of cameo-level performances, including some very loopy work from the normally funny Rebel Wilson, though it's hard to know who to blame for that as most of her lines barely even make sense. Likewise wasted is Christina Hendricks, who baby-voices her way through her limited role as the new woman in Carson's father's life.
"Struck by Lightning" bites off far more than it can chew as the story attempts to track with both Carson's attempts to undermine and control his high school experience but also gives us quite a lengthy glimpse into his parent's failed marriage and his father's attempts at starting a new family. Interspersed throughout is Carson's interactions with his increasingly distant grandmother, all making for an emotional muddled mess -- the cinematic equivalent of a violent teenage outburst. Not content with that, the film is also bleakly nihilistic, though it ultimately attempts to offer up Carson's contributions to society as meaningful after spending the entire running time convincing us that nothing he did mattered much. High school is presented as merely a stop-gap; Carson knows what's really worthwhile and everyone else is standing in the way of his real life, which waits for him somewhere out in the real world.
At times the film is charming against its own will, but it remains needlessly complicated and obsessed with its own mythology and metaphors.We're left with a chaotic and mediocre mess, a sad life in a sad town with sad people with a very pointless end. The laughs don't land most of the time and the attempts at worldly knowledge feel woefully childish in their boldness. "Struck by Lightning" may appeal to fans of Colfer's work on "Glee," but as a film it's utterly lacking in scope, depth or meaning beyond an immediate chuckle or two.
"Struck by Lightning" is available now from iTunes and VOD and will be released in theaters on Jan. 11, 2013.