Teen film tries to have it both ways


The title character of “Spork” (Savannah Stehlin) is a misfit hermaphrodite teen coping with the hazards of junior high. Produced by out actor Chad Allen, and written and directed by J.B. Ghuman Jr., who is gay, this uneven comedy with music and dance is best appreciated by younger audiences who need the “different is good” message reinforced. The film opens today at the Roxy.

As the film opens, Spork is the victim of incessant bullying. Kids shoot spitballs at her frizzy hair on the school bus and she sits alone in the cafeteria at lunch. One day, she retaliates against the abuse and throws a basketball at the thin, blonde popular girl, Betsy Byotch (Rachel G. Fox), in gym class, breaking her nose.

“Look at the up side,” Betsy’s friend Loosie Goosie (Oana Gregory) tells her in one of the film’s funnier moments: “Now you can get a nose job!”

“Spork” relies — perhaps too heavily — on the very stereotypes it wants to deflate for comedy. One character, Charlie (Michael William Arnold), is teased as he is perceived to be gay. He has two dads, and he later reveals to Spork that he knows all of Justin Timberlake’s dance moves.

Oddly, Charlie wants Spork to be his girlfriend, even if she is a hermaphrodite. He is either oblivious or secretly grateful that she has a “dingaling,” as the film describes her genitalia; the film is never clear.

The gender confusion is duly acknowledged, but “Spork” wants to be satirical and celebratory. Unfortunately, the writing isn’t sharp enough to have it both ways, as “Napoleon Dynamite” was.

The film’s main narrative arc has Spork entering the school’s dance contest to win money so her trailer-home neighbor Tootsie Roll (Sydney Park) can visit her father in prison. Tootsie Roll is an African-American teen who speaks in urban slang. Her dialogue may be authentic, but it is exaggerated and also a bit grating. If audiences really want to take offense, however, there is a scene of Betsy’s friends dancing in blackface to mock/“get back” at Spork and her African-American friends. It is a low point for both Spork and the film.

Tootsie Roll can’t compete in the contest because she injured herself slipping on her hair products on the gym floor while practicing her moves. So she teaches the uncoordinated Spork how to do hip-hop dances like Dookie Dump. Eventually, the pair determines Spork’s skills are more suited toward putting Twister positions to music.

The dance scenes are, in fact, the film’s highlights, and an early club sequence shows off Tootsie Roll’s talents and provides Betsy and Loosie a few opportunities to strut their stuff. A later musical number in the school hallway featuring Betsy and her friends is particularly fun and well-choreographed.

Other fine moments feature Spork bonding with her brother, Spit (Rodney Eastman), and underscore her need to fit in, make friends and find her self-worth. These scenes are magnified with less successful ones of Spork talking to her late (and stuffed) dog, or her late mother, who is “temporarily” buried in the backyard.

“Spork” often takes a joke and beats it into submission. A scene in anatomy class about reproduction is tiresome. In contrast, an exchange between Spit and Spork, where he asks if she got someone pregnant, or if she got pregnant, traverses the same sexual territory with slightly more wit.

These moments suggest that Ghuman was uncertain of the tone he wanted to take and tried every permutation of a joke, hoping some of them would connect.

Apropos of nothing, the film’s use of animated clouds is a nice touch.

If the characters are underwritten and their situations are overwritten, at least the film’s performances are engaging. Stehlin makes Spork sympathetic throughout, and her ability to capture the gawkiness of adolescence makes up for some of the film’s more unconvincing moments. When Spork tells Charlie she’s never heard of “The Wizard of Oz,” only “The Wiz,” it falls flat. Stehlin’s deadpan delivery is not the problem, it’s the material. In support, Park is memorable as the motor-mouthed Tootsie and Fox plays her princess character well, even if she could be haughtier and bitchier.

Like its determined heroine, “Spork” keeps trying to get its message across. And for viewers who embrace this message, that will be entertaining enough.