Doing a review of something memorable I’ve watched in my childhood has been on my pile of to-do lists for quite some time, thanks to my uber-procrastinator self. The 90’s as well as the earlier parts of the 2nd millennium is an interesting era for cinema, and although a number of films immediately came to my mind, I just knew that this one movie is the first one I’m going to write about.
It was during the late summer of 2002 when I was 11 years young that I got to see the MTV Films-produced high school comedy, “Orange County”, starred by Colin Hanks alongside Jack Black. Looking back, the movie isn’t really too intellectual to be Oscar-worthy, nor too artsy-fartsy to be screened in Cannes. It’s mediocre in so many ways but somehow, I found it unforgettable. Maybe it’s the unlikely premise of a writer-wannabe so mismatched against the backdrop of a beach community and a dysfunctional family he grew up in. Or maybe it’s the thick summery feel of this movie’s production design erstwhile tackling that universal theme of finding your niche and following your dreams. Or maybe it’s the viral, cooler-than-thou soundtrack. Or how Jack Black steals the show with his comedic genius.
Or perhaps it’s that brief Eureka Moment I shared and identified with Colin Hank’s character during the first few minutes of the film, in a scene where he just finished reading the book that changed his life for the 52nd time and the dream finally hit his head, enlightening him to utter: “I want to be a writer.”
Like any other high school movie, it was catchy enough, at least I think for those within the teenage strata. I wasn’t even in my teens then, (I was 11, as I mentioned) and I’ve barely started sixth grade, so High School felt like a new country ahead of me. True, before the thrill, there was fear first; I felt there was a need to hog as much guidelines and whatnots at the time, so any High School flick was a welcome addition to my references. It’s a delight though, how the movie turned out to be not so much of the average, cliché-ridden teen comedy I was expecting. For once, it wasn’t about cocky football jocks ganging up on the nerds, or an unfashionable dork trying to be the campus superstar, or about threatened cheerleaders bullying the forlorn transferee, or the loser’s love affair with the school heartthrob or a class of misfits competing for some contest for a cause (Read: I have a pet peeve for stereotypes, yes.) It’s refreshing because the protagonist presented a different dilemma than usual—that rather than wanting to fit in and blend with the crowd, it’s about someone who stands out because he knew what he wanted and he’s going for it.
Enter Shaun Brumder’s life—a senior high school student and former surfer dude who gave up the wind and the waves in exchange for pen and paper, after stumbling upon a book by accident and realizing that what he really wanted to do in life is to write. In his utter obsession with an author he really looked up to, he made up his mind to pursue Stanford for college—an environment he envisioned to be perfect for literature lovers just like him.
Then again, a movie ain’t a movie without the odds and conflicts to keep the ball rollin’. And unfortunately for Shaun, too many things are getting in his way. In surfer jargon, let’s just say, everything isn’t as smooth-sailing as he wanted to be. To begin with, there’s that ‘tsunami-wave’ of a screw-up that started the storm: the registrar (with the memory span of a gold fish, I presume) sent in the wrong transcript under Shaun’s name, causing him to be rejected in his application for Stanford. The horror! I definitely could stomach birth switches, ancient family secrets, betrayal and insert-melodrama-theme-here, but SENDING THE WRONG TRANSCRIPT FOR A COLLEGE APPLICATION? It’s every senior student’s nightmare! Unforgivable.
That injustice didn’t stop our hero, of course. Together with his doting and adorable girlfriend, Ashley, played by the bubbly Schuyler Fisk, they get a rundown on the other options they could take to get Shaun on track. Can I just say they look so cute together? I developed a crush on Colin Hanks ever since this movie, but I totally didn’t mind their onscreen chemistry which came out very naturally.
And of course, there’s the universal icon for losers, Jack Black, who steals every scene with his golden one-liners. He plays Lance; Shaun’s drugged-out and perpetually wasted brother, who’s forever recovering from the night before. He’s dim-witted alright, but it’s cute how much he’s willing to fight for his brother though, it’s just that his ideas aren’t always that practical and effective.
With a very short running time of only about an hour and a half, the movie takes on the course of events which transpired within 24 hours, mostly consisting of Shaun getting around things to work together and his dysfunctional family unintentionally ruining things for his every attempt, causing everything to fall further apart. There’s his overly-sensitive, alcoholic mother who is divorced with their filthy-rich but potty-mouthed father, his wheelchair-bound, ancient and accident-prone step-father, his not-so-bright surfer friends, and of course, his loser brother Lance. Really, there are portions of the film too painful to watch because of second-hand embarrassment, you will not help but be sorry for Shaun. Quoting him towards the latter part of the film: “I should have seen this coming. The one day I need my family to come through for me, they end up doing what they always do: my father goes ballistic, my mother gets plastered, and my brother burns down a building. It’s like they’ve all come together in some evil conspiracy to prevent me from getting anywhere.”
The movie climaxes towards a silent but satisfying conclusion, with things finally falling into place, and brand-new realizations that enlightened our protagonists. I would’ve imagined a lot of other versions to end it, but I’m fine with how things concluded. I really really loved the tag line they used to promote the film which says, “It’s not a place. It’s a state of mind.”
Orange County is a light and amusing watch with an insight. It challenges to soar above the typical high school comedy, and although it wasn’t able to break too much ground in that respect, it has been relatable enough to mirror that universal reality of how our dreams aren’t always achieved overnight and that so many things and people will be hindering us along the way. Truth be told, I must say that this movie was one of my earliest eye-openers at a time that I was also so headstrong about loving writing too much. My eleven year-old self was a bit scarred by Shaun’s father’s outburst when he told him he what he wanted to become. “A writer? What are you going to write about? You’re not oppressed, you’re not gay!…and they’re all poor!” He remarked. Harsh words are harsh.
But I guess more than anything else, it encouraged me that the travails of writing will never be futile., if we choose to look at it the right way. Dreamers always have the option to keep going or to give up. There will be pain, there will be rejection, and there will be sadness and getting worn-out. But there will always be words, and there will always be stories to tell, inside our heads and for the world to see.