Bernard Flannigan (Skyler Gisondo) concludes his opening editorial with a simple, but powerful phrase: “Rise up.” This statement, uttered often, but rarely acted upon, is the basis of director Eric Stoltz’s latest independent high school comedy, “Class Rank.”
This film follows the empowering emotional journey of two self-centered high school outcasts as they hit the campaign trail, with hopes of dethroning their stubborn school board incumbents.
Filmed in Louisiana, but set in the town of Livingston, N.J., “Class Rank” elaborates on the experiences of Livingston native, Ben August, who was inspired by his childhood memories of local school board meetings to write this film. August’s father served on the Livingston Board of Education when August was a child and often brought his son along to observe democracy in action.
“Growing up, I would go to board meetings every once in a while, and there would always be, inevitably, one person in the audience who was kind of a pain in the butt, and I just always thought that person was kind of a fascinating character, so I took it to the next level,” August said.
For August, the character of Bernard Flannigan, the outlandish high school junior who runs for a position on the school board, is the projection of all the annoying, outspoken attendees from the school board meetings of his youth. Despite his quirky character, Flannigan is the one young person brave enough to rise up for the betterment of his school community.
This film dives deeper into the mindset of a young advocate as he navigates the social challenges of both politics and high school and develops feelings for his campaign manager, Veronica Krauss (Olivia Holt), the anxious student body president and Yale University hopeful.
Krauss’ story begins with an abrupt emotional outburst as a No. 2 class rank sends her academic aspirations spiraling down the drain in the grotesque Livingston High School bathroom.
Her character amplifies the emotional reactions of the typical high-strung Ivy League hopeful. Krauss blows her near-perfect class rank so far out of proportion that it prompts her to initiate Flannigan’s school board campaign to abolish the class rank program altogether. After all, that is the most reasonable solution, in her opinion.
The relationship between Bernard and Veronica undergoes a tense romantic transition that has the audience laughing and cringing throughout the film. Affectionate third-party nicknames from their classmates help ease the tension as the newly proclaimed “Barfnard” and “Virginica” navigate their feelings and learn to appreciate the apparent flaws in one another.
“It’s interesting to watch Bernie and Veronica’s relationship evolve and grow,” actress Olivia Holt said. “And I think that’s because both of them are very open-minded, and neither of them judged each other too fast to see the complexity of each other’s character.”
Holt, 19, was homeschooled throughout high school because of her recurring role on the Disney Channel program “Kickin’ It.” The young actress attributes her knowledge of high school relationships to her 15-year-old brother, Cade Holt.
“Watching my brother and his friends, and seeing how these kids interact with each other in such a one-dimensional way is almost heart-breaking,” Holt said.
It was the refreshing authenticity of Bernard and Veronica’s offbeat adolescent romance that caught Holt’s attention when she initially read the screenplay.
“It’s so rare to see a relationship like Bernie and Veronica’s,” Holt said. “It’s actually really special, and I think that’s why I was so drawn to the character.”
Skyler Gisondo, best known for “Vacation” (2015) and “Night at the Museum 3” (2014), took on the challenging role of Bernard Flannigan in his search for something that was “just different” and did not adhere to the “pressure of appealing to social norms.”
“Bernie is a character who reminds you that it’s great to be weird,” Gisondo said. “It keeps life more interesting.”
Gisondo captured the unconventional personality of the young school board candidate with absurdly serious phrasing and repetitive stunts of situational comedy.
Perhaps the most noteworthy element of Gisondo’s performance was his non-verbal acting technique. His austere body language and eccentric mannerisms propelled his portrayal of Bernard to a new level of excellence and made not only Veronica, but the entire audience, fall in love with his adorably oblivious character.
The 20-year-old actor commended director Eric Stoltz on his personal focus in helping Gisondo capture the complexities of Bernard’s character.
“With every scene, Eric would have some type of idea or note that would elevate the scene,” Gisondo said.
It was Stoltz’s lighthearted, scene-by-scene commentary and personal insight from his experiences as an actor in such films as “Mask” (1985), “Pulp Fiction” (1994), and “Some Kind of Wonderful” (1987) that brought out the eccentricities in each character portrayal.
“As an actor, I rarely felt seen by the director, so one thing I try to bring when I direct is the way the actors think and how they feel,” Stoltz said. “I try to honor the actor’s creative process, and it often adds a whole new element to the character that I had never even considered.”
The central message of Stoltz’s film revolves around youth empowerment, and in today’s heated political climate, it could not be a more inspiring film for students who feel that their opinions and access to a quality public education are limited by those in power.
“I would hope that high school students take away the idea that no matter how smart or knowledgeable you are or how popular your opinions might be, it shouldn’t limit your civic engagement, even if it’s uncomfortable because that’s how you become a stronger person and start to make real changes in the world around you,” Stoltz said.
“Class Rank” calls young people to rise up when those in power dare to silence their beliefs. It teaches students that their age does not have to limit their ability to make a change in their community.
“Growing is not easy,” Gisondo said. “It’s difficult, but they go through it anyway and bring out the best in each other through that shared experience, and that’s a really beautiful thing.”
“Class Rank” made its world debut at the Newport Beach Film Festival on the evening of Friday, April 21 at the Regency Historic Lido Theater.