It’s no secret that cinematic storylines favor the underdog. It could be Seabiscuit, a guffawing George McFly, a humiliated Carrie drenched in pig’s blood on prom night or Anthony Michael Hall in any John Hughes movie he’s ever been in — they triumph over frailty and foes to deliver movie magic glistening before the tear-filled eyes of the hopeful.
By the time the credits start rolling, downtrodden protagonists are almost always ready to sit pretty while their tormentors suffer through their just rewards. Maybe such oafish offenders are being punished for picking on the puny, as the merciless “Biff” did in “Back to the Future” or for encouraging ostracization of the outsider, like the hysterically chaste Christian school girls in “Easy A” or “Saved!”
In the transformation from victim to victor, a film’s lead gives credence to the notion that justice will inevitably be served, that the endurance of pain is a mark of the righteous. Sometimes, the bad things that happen to good people will right themselves in the end. Other times, they don’t turn out quite so tidy.
Directed by Jacob Aaron Estes
Starring Rory Culkin, Ryan Kelley and Scott Mechlowicz
A group of vigilante teens seek revenge on a loutish and insecure bully who picks on a member’s younger brother, but their river-bound scheme to humiliate the clod quickly goes awry when they discover he’s not only a pitiable figure who just wants to be liked but also doesn’t know how to swim. Moral quandaries wash up on shore as blunt and brutal as the dead body the pranksters now have on their hands. With plot elements that call to mind and also contrast the moral ambiguity and youthful malaise rampant in 1986’s “River’s Edge,” each youth must reconcile with their own culpability in a diffuse and fleeting abuse of power.
“Welcome to the Dollhouse”
Directed by Todd Solondz
Starring Heather Matarazzo, Victoria Davis and Christina Brucato
Middle schooler Dawn Weiner (Matarazzo) is a grade-A loser and no one, not her peers, older brother or even mother will let her forget it. Strangers scrawl slurs on her locker, a raging outcast treats her to his mercurial outbursts and affections, and she’s far from being the brightest student in class. The solution, then, is to take it all out on her cloyingly adorable younger sister, ballerina and squealing brown-noser Missy (Daria Kalinina), who Dawn schemes to have kidnapped. A poor student, a combative sibling and a sexually frustrated nerd, Dawn “Weinerdog” Weiner is the unlikely underdog who Solondz frames as his lovably naïve and fumbling tragic hero in this John Waters-esque take on the bizarre world of a middle school misfit.
Directed by Spencer Susser
Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Devin Brochu and Natalie Portman
T.J’s bully comes in the form of domineering anarchist Hesher (Gordon-Levitt), who imposes himself — impenetrably looming punk swagger and all — upon T.J. following the unexpected death of the depressed and demure schoolboy’s mother. Wordlessly shacking up in the melancholic household T.J. occupies with his quasi-catatonic father (Rainn Wilson) and his ailing grandmother, Hesher purposely discomforts the child and keeps any sympathy at bay, which he shows by looking on passively and failing to intervene when T.J. gets over-powered by a bully at school. At first, director Spencer Susser gives the sense that this non-feeling aggressor has no redeeming qualities or didactic intentions, but Hesher — ever the anarchist — doesn’t play by the rules.
Directed by Larry Clark
Starring Brad Renfro, Nick Stahl and Bijou Phillips
A group of friends conspire to murder a mutual friend after his psychological and physical abuses go too far. Based on a true story, “Kids” director Larry Clark once again shows his finesse for showing what teenage train wrecks look like in real time. The planned killing is a case study — albeit not a tidy one — of drastically uneven and shifting power dynamics, the transformation of victims to ring leaders and whether, even in the plot and consequences of murdering a violent brute, justice has been served.