Review: ‘What We Found,’ starring Jordan Hall, Oona Laurence, James Ransone, Brandon Larracuente, Julian Shatkin, Giorgia Whigham and Elizabeth Mitchell

August 5, 2020

by Carla Hay

Julian Shatkin, Jordan Hall and Oona Laurence in “What We Found” (Photo courtesy of Freestyle Digital Media)

“What We Found” 

Directed by Ben Hickernell

Culture Representation: Taking place in Baltimore, the crime drama “What We Found” features a racially diverse cast (white and African American with a few Latinos and Asians) representing the upper-class, middle-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash:  After being harassed by a school bully, a nerdy teen enlists his two best friends to investigate the disappearance of one his female schoolmates who was romantically involved with the bully.

Culture Audience: “What We Found” will appeal primarily to people who like teen-oriented dramas that have formulaic tendencies.

Elizabeth Mitchell and James Ransone in “What We Found” (Photo courtesy of Freestyle Digital Media)

You know those young-adult mystery novels that have teenage sleuths who are better at solving crimes than the local police? The type of books that try to be classics like “Nancy Drew” and “The Hardy Boys” series, but end up being very forgettable? “What We Found” is the movie equivalent of those substandard novels. It’s a solidly acted drama, but the action-filled showdown at the end of the film stretches so much credibility that it ends up turning the film into a predictable and unimaginative dud.

Written and directed by Ben Hickernell, “What We Found” (which takes place in Baltimore) tells the tale of two worlds that collide: The relatively safe world of a middle-class public high school and the dangerous world of drug dealing. The story’s main protagonist is a smart science-and-tech whiz named Marcus Jackson (played by Jordan Hall), who has just started his freshman year at Goldspring High School.

Marcus has led somewhat of a sheltered existence with his widowed mother Alex Jackson (played by Yetide Badaki), who is very protective of her only child. Marcus’ two best friends are feisty Holly (played by Oona Laurence) and privileged Grant (played by Julian Shatkin). Holly and Marcus are in the same freshman class at Goldspring High School, which has a reputation for having tougher students than Keatonsville Middle School, where Marcus and Holly previously attended. Grant, who’s about two years older than Marcus and Holly, goes to a private school and drives a Porsche, but he doesn’t let his wealth and older age get in the way of their friendship.

Holly has a very unhappy life at home, because her parents Art (played by Shannon Brown) and Bridget (played Sunny Edelman) are constantly arguing, and Art physically abuses Bridget. Grant’s parents seem to have a happy marriage, and they indulge in some vices. Grant tells Holly and Marcus that his parents have “date nights” where they like to get stoned. On one of those nights, Grant has taken some of his parents’ marijuana for the three friends to sneak off somewhere and smoke.

While the three pals sit around and smoke outside in a deserted hangout area, they look at the stars and Marcus shows some of his fascination with outer space by reeling off some of his trivia about planets. Grant knows that Marcus can be perceived as a scrawny nerd and will be a target for bullies, so Grant asks Marcus if he’s ready to go to Goldspring High School. Marcus says that he can handle the tough crowds at the school.

On Marcus’ first day of school at Goldspring, one of the first people he sees is his former babysitter: an energetic teenager named Cassie (played by Georgia Whigham), who introduces Marcus to her boyfriend Brian Santini (played by Donald Dash), a popular athlete at the school. During a lunch break outside in a school dining area, Marcus and Holly meet two friendly seniors: Karl (played by Paul Castro Jr.) and Ned (played by Anubhav Jain), who tell Marcus and Holly about Hell House, an abandoned dwelling in the woods where some of the local teenagers like to party.

Marcus is eager to impress these upperclassmen, so he shows them a trick where he can hack into nearby phones and install and activate various sound-effects apps without the phone user’s permission. As a prank, Marcus does the trick on a few of the phones of the students nearby. The prank gets some intended laughs, as the phone users show surprise when the apps are loudly activated. One of the apps has the sound effects of a woman having an orgasm, and Marcus randomly activates it on the phone of Clay Howard (played by Brandon Larracuente), who also happens to be the biggest bully in the school.

Clay is angry that someone hacked into his phone. And when he notices that Marcus and his group are laughing a little too hard, Clay immediately goes to their table, singles out Marcus (who has his phone out), and accuses Marcus of hacking his phone. Carl looks like he’s about to start a fight with Marcus until a teacher steps in and diffuses the situation. Marcus is too scared to admit that he did the hacking, but he now knows that he’s made a potential enemy in Carl.

And sure enough, when Marcus and Holly are hanging out later at Hell House with some of the local teen stoners, Carl shows up and intimidates Marcus, until Marcus admits that he hacked into Carl’s phone. This admission enrages Carl, who roughs him up and taunts Marcus with degrading insults, while one of Carl’s cronies video records it all on his phone. And of course, the video is posted on social media, which adds to Marcus’ humiliation.

After this bullying incident, Cassie tells Clay to stop harassing Marcus. Clay abruptly stops trying to pick a fight with Marcus. It’s the first indication that something is going on between Clay and Cassie, whose body language when they’re together suggest that they might be having a secret relationship, even though Cassie is dating Brian.

Later, Cassie warns Marcus when they’re alone together that Clay is a big problem: “Be careful with him,” Cassie tells Marcus. “I found things he was hiding from me. Watch your back.”

It isn’t long before the truth comes out: Cassie has been cheating on Brian with Clay. It leads to Clay and Brian getting into a huge physical fight outside the high school, with several students watching this brawl. Some school officials break up the fight. Clay and Brian then get suspended.

But then something strange happens: Cassie disappears. Her disappearance causes more unease in the area, which has been plagued by a string of recent murders, which the media and the local police suspect are related to the drug-dealing gangs in the area. Two of the cops involved in the missing-persons investigation are Captain Katherine Hilman (played by Elizabeth Mitchell) and Sergeant Steven Mohler (played by James Ransone), who has some resentment toward Captain Hilman because she declined to give him a promotion.

Brian and Carl are both seen as “persons of interest” in Cassie’s disappearance because of the love triangle between the three of them. Marcus takes Cassie’s disappearance personally, and he suspects that Carl is involved in some way. And so, Marcus, Holly and Grant start being teen detectives to find out what happened to Cassie.

“What We Found” has some typical scenes of the teens (especially Marcus) doing some spying as part of their detective work. Marcus also uses his computer skills to help them in their quest. The cast members’ acting is good overall, with Laurence as a standout for her portrayal of Holly’s complicated emotions over her dysfunctional family. On the other hand, Larracuente (as Clay the bully) could use some more acting lessons, since he over-acts in some of the scenes while his scene partners are being more realistic.

Ultimately, “What We Found” suffers from a screenplay that often gets too clunky. The friendship between Marcus, Holly and Grant is one of the best things about the story. Their dialogue is authentic and the situations that happen between them as high-school students are portrayed realistically.

But the movie falls short in other areas, particularly in how it portrays the local cops and criminals. Baltimore is a big city, but the movie makes the local police force look like it’s in a small town. And there’s a big chase scene toward the end of the film that will have people rolling their eyes at how ludicrous some situations play out. For example, the movie has the dumb cliché of a villain pointing a gun at someone in the middle of a high-octane action scene, and then pausing for a monologue instead of shooting the gun.

Because there are too many formulaic ways that this story is told, “What We Found” gives the impression that it’s a forgettable made-for-TV movie instead of a truly cinematic experience. Writer/director Hickernell tries to aim for some gritty social commentary in the movie about crime and corruption, but in the end, those messages are glossed over in a trite manner that will disappoint people who want something more original.

Freestyle Digital Media released “What We Found” on digital and VOD on August 4, 2020.

Review: ‘Big Time Adolescence,’ starring Pete Davidson

March 13, 2020

by Carla Hay

Griffin Gluck and Pete Davidson in “Big Time Adolescence” (Photo courtesy of Hulu)

“Big Time Adolescence”

Directed by Jason Orley

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. suburban city, the comedy/drama “Big Time Adolescence” has a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans and Latinos) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A high-school student’s close friendship with an older guy who’s a stoner ends up being problematic for the student.

Culture Audience: “Big Time Adolescence” will appeal primarily to people who like male-centric coming-of-age stories or stories about young people partying.

Pete Davidson and Griffin Gluck in “Big Time Adolescence” (Photo courtesy of Hulu)

“Big Time Adolescence” is just another way of saying “Overgrown Man-Boy,” which is the typecast persona that “Saturday Night Live” star Pete Davidson has cultivated for himself so far in his entertainment career. It’s exactly this type of person that Davidson plays in this comedy/drama, where his Zeke character is an irresponsible stoner in his early 20s who’s a bad influence on high-school student Monroe “Mo” Harris (played by Griffin Gluck), who is Zeke’s best friend.

Viewers know this from the beginning of the story, which shows in the opening scene that Mo is getting taken out of his classroom by a police officer. And Mo says in a voiceover that it’s Zeke’s fault that Mo got into this mess. What exactly is the mess that has gotten Mo in trouble with the law?

Most of the rest of the movie shows what happened that led up to this moment. In a flashback to six years earlier, Mo became friends with Zeke when Mo was about 10 years old and Zeke was about 16. At the time, Zeke was dating Mo’s sister Kate (played by Emily Arlook), who eventually broke up with Zeke because she suspected that he was cheating on her. The night that they broke up, Mo asked Zeke if he and Zeke could still be friends. At first, Zeke doesn’t think it’s good idea, but Mo insists and Zeke relents, and off they ride in Zeke’s car.

Over the next six years, Mo and Zeke have become close enough that they consider each other to be “best friends” and have what might be considered something like an older brother/younger brother relationship. Now 16 years old, Mo hasn’t made any real friends in high school. His social life revolves around hanging out with Zeke and Zeke’s fellow dimwitted stoner friends, which include Danny (played by Omar Shariff Brunson Jr.) and Nick (played by Colson Baker, also known as rapper Machine Gun Kelly).

Mo isn’t a complete loner at school. He’s on the baseball team, but he does not excel there. He’s not good enough to be frequently chosen for playing on the field during games, and it adds to his insecurities. Mo wants to quit the team, but his supportive parents Reuben and Sherri (played by Jon Cryer and Julia Murney) urge him to not give up.

Zeke goes to watch Mo at baseball practice, where he sits far away from Reuben and Sherri and is shown to be the loudest and most irritating spectator on the benches. Instead of giving Mo tips to improve his baseball playing, Zeke encourages Mo to not take a swing when he’s at bat and instead take the lazier option of base on balls (also known as a walk) to get to first base.

Zeke has his own house that he inherited from his late grandmother. It’s party central at the home, but somehow, up until a certain point in the story, Mo has managed to never get stoned, although he does partake in underage drinking when he’s with Zeke. Even though it’s entirely believable that Mo declined to smoke marijuana while being Zeke’s friend, what’s harder to believe is that Mo never got a contact high from all the years of partying with Zeke and his friends.

The movie shows Mo’s first “contact high” with Zeke much later in the story, when a stoner friend from Zeke’s murky past just happens to see Zeke and Mo while they’re out driving in Zeke’s car.  Zeke’s long-lost pal wants to catch up and get high for old time’s sake and makes Zeke close all the car windows while they smoke blunts.

Even though Mo spends a lot of time with hard-partying Zeke, Mo is very sheltered when it comes to dating. It’s revealed in the movie that not only is he a virgin, but he’s also never been on a date or kissed or girl. Considering the kind of person Zeke is and how he pushes Mo so hard to be a reckless partier, it’s kind of unrealistic that Mo didn’t get involved in drugs sooner. We’re supposed to believe that during the relatively short period of time that this movie takes place (about a month or two), Mo’s life suddenly took a downward spiral because of Zeke.

What flipped this switch? For starters, Mo got his driver’s license, which allows him to have more freedom. The other thing that happens is that Mo unexpectedly gets a chance to hang out with some of the “cool” older kids in school. But there’s a catch.

He’s invited to his first high-school house party by a fellow nerd named Will, who goes by the nickname Stacy (played by Thomas Barbusca). Stacy says that he was invited to the party because Stacy promised the older kids that he would bring alcohol, but Stacy doesn’t know how to get alcohol and he needs Mo to get the alcohol through Zeke. In return, Mo will get to go to the party as Stacy’s guest.

When Mo tells Zeke about the party, Zeke immediately sees it as an opportunity to sell some of his marijuana and make a profit. He tells Mo that Mo has to be the one to sell the weed at the party because Mo is underage and the legal consequences won’t be as severe if he gets caught. Mo is extremely reluctant, but since he idolizes Zeke, Mo is convinced to do it. As part of the deal, Zeke says that he will split the profits with Mo.

Things go much better at the party than Mo expected. Not only was he instantly accepted because he brought alcohol and marijuana, but he also got to connect at the party with a fellow student named Sophie (played by Oona Laurence), who’s been a secret crush of his from afar. Sophie is smart with a sarcastic sense of humor. She finds Mo’s awkwardness endearing, even though she’s trying to hide some of her awkwardness too.

Mo felt so good about his first party experience with his high-school peers that he jumps at the chance when he’s invited to another house party soon afterward. At the first party, he and Zeke made a tidy profit from the drug sales, so Zeke wants Mo to keep selling marijuana at these parties. Zeke has even quit his job as a sales clerk at an appliance store because he figures that he can make enough money by overcharging high school students for drug sales, so he doesn’t have to work.

Zeke literally tells Mo all of this, but naïve Mo still acts surprised that Zeke doesn’t want a job and would rather sit back and let Mo do all the dirty work in the drug deals while Zeke reaps the monetary benefits. Mo protests and says his drug dealing at the party was just a “one-time thing.” But once again, Mo gives in to whatever Zeke wants because Mo is desperate to look “cool.”

That desperation is reinforced when an attractive older girl approaches Mo at school and asks him if he can score her some molly, which she wants him to bring to the next house party. Feeling buoyed by this attention, Mo says yes and asks Zeke for help to get some molly. Of course, Zeke has the molly that Mo requests, along with a stash of other drugs that are randomly lying around his house.

Reuben and Sherri sense that Zeke isn’t a very good influence on Mo, but they still let Mo hang out with Zeke because Mo seems to be doing well-enough in his school academics and they don’t want Mo to resent them for being too restrictive. Reuben is more suspicious of Zeke than Sherri is. In a private moment alone with Zeke, Reuben even gives Zeke same cash to keep Mo out of trouble. Zeke takes the money. But then, like the smarmy person that he is, he asks Reuben for a raise. Reuben just has to shake his head and walk away.

Meanwhile, Mo starts a budding romance with Sophie. She’s his first date and first kiss. But once again, Zeke interferes by advising Mo to play hard to get after a while, in order to manipulate Sophie to like Mo even more. Zeke has a girlfriend named Holly (played by Sydney Sweeney), who is nice to Mo and very tolerant of Zeke’s childish ways. Holly parties with Zeke and his friends, but she also does things like cook for Zeke and make his house more domestic.

Unbeknownst to Mo and Holly, Zeke is still in love with Mo’s sister Kate, who is planning to go to law school. Zeke and Kate have a parking-lot hookup in Zeke’s car, but it’s an encounter that she immediately regrets and tells Zeke that it won’t happen again. She has also moved on to a responsible live-in boyfriend named Doug (played by Esteban Benito), who is the type of ambitious art-collecting yuppie that Zeke despises but secretly envies.

We know that Zeke is insecure about not measuring up to someone like Doug  because not long after meeting Doug (when Mo convinces Zeke to drive him over to Kate and Doug’s place), Zeke and Mo go to an art museum (it was Zeke’s idea of course), where Zeke tells Mo that he can appreciate art too. But viewers see how unsophisticated Zeke is when he foolishly thinks he can buy one of the paintings on display and offers a museum employee cash on the spot. (Whatever amount he offered was also obviously laughable.) Zeke has to settle for buying an oversized print at the museum gift shop instead.

The movie doesn’t really show what kind of academic student Mo is, but it’s implied that he’s probably good enough to consider going to college. However, Mo is definitely not “street smart.” He doesn’t realize until it’s too late that his new “social status” at school is very superficial because it’s about people using him to get drugs.

Mo’s relationship with Zeke is a little more complicated because of the big brother/little brother relationship they’ve had over the years. As Mo says about Zeke near the beginning of the film, “He was the man and he made me feel like the man.” But this type of co-dependence has now turned dark, as Mo gets more involved in dealing drugs to fellow students. The movie doesn’t let Mo off the hook so easily by portraying him as a completely innocent child corrupted by an adult, because despite Zeke’s influence, Mo still knew right from wrong and had a choice to do what he did.

As Kate tells Mo, it’s weird that Zeke wants to be best friends with a teenager, and it’s only because Mo makes Zeke feel cool. But to the rest of the world, Zeke isn’t cool. Her warnings to Mo fall on deaf ears. But there are signs that Mo knows she’s right, such as when Mo mentions to Zeke that he’s thinking of introducing Sophie to Zeke, but Mo asks Zeke to not make the moment into “The Zeke Show.”

Davidson has made a career of being an often-obnoxious, immature guy who’s not as funny as he thinks he is. Zeke is that kind of person too, so if you’re not a fan of Davidson, his Zeke character is going to wear very thin because it just seems like Davidson is playing a version of himself for the entire movie.

“Big Time Adolescence” is the first feature film from writer/director Jason Orley, who also directed Davidson’s “Alive From New York” Netflix comedy special. If Orley and Davidson continue to work together, it’ll be interesting to see if they can do something different from the same “man-child” shtick that Davidson has been stuck on repeat in doing. The Zeke character is almost a caricature because there’s no real depth to him, and the movie tells almost nothing about his background.

Because the movie revealed from the beginning that Mo gets arrested, there’s not much suspense to “Big Time Adolescence.” And it’s certainly not an original idea to do a movie about teenagers and young adults who like to party. But what saves this movie from complete mediocrity is Gluck’s authentic and sometimes emotionally touching performance as Mo, because Mo (not Zeke) is ultimately the one who grows up and is the character in the movie that audiences will care about the most.

Hulu released “Big Time Adolescence” in select U.S. cinemas and began streaming the movie on March 13, 2020. The streaming premiere date was moved up from March 20, 2020.