Chocolate War [1988]

After acting in literary adaptations like Christine, Keith Gordon returned to the well for his directorial debut. His smart and stylish adaptation of Robert Cormier's controversial youth novel marks him as a natural. Based in a frequently overcast Pacific Northwest, Jerry Renault (Ilan Mitchell-Smith, Weird Science) enters a Catholic boys' school in the wake of his mother's passing. The freshman already has enough worries, but then Brother Leon (a ferocious John Glover) instructs each student to sell 50 boxes of chocolates during Trinity's annual fundraiser. Jerry refuses. Leon is taken aback, but then he finds that Jerry's refusal--his assignment--was handed down by Machiavellian upperclassman Archie (CSI's Wallace Langham, then known as Wally Ward), head of the Vigils. The secret society also instructs Jerry to recant, but he sticks to his guns. At first, a few kids congratulate him on his stand, but then Leon and Archie, threatened by the iconoclast, turn the school against him. The climactic showdown between Jerry and Archie deviates from the book, but retains its cynical spirit. As Gordon explains in his DVD interview, "They both threaten the system, and in the end, the system is a much bigger problem than any one individual." Like his mentor Brian DePalma, Gordon aims more for emotional than visual truth, which translates into dramatic lighting and fantasy sequences (which are, at first, more confusing than illuminating), but the performances remain grounded in reality. Interestingly, Mitchell-Smith, who never overplays his hand, abandoned acting in the 1990s--for teaching. --Kathleen C. Fennessy

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