The Gonzo we are cautioned about in “Beware the Gonzo” is Eddie “Gonzo” Gilman, an intense prep-academy student who believes his school newspaper can right wrongs and fight injustice. It can’t, really, but he’s not the first student journalist to suffer from a surplus of idealism. He might be the first to single-handedly bring down a school cafeteria, though.
Gonzo is played by Ezra Miller, who looks like a Justin Long-Jimmy Fallon hybrid and has a smirking delivery reminiscent of Christian Slater in “Heathers.” A senior at Parker Prep, Gonzo intends to study journalism at Columbia next year, but he’s been beaten for the editor-in-chief position at the Parker Courier by Gavin Reilly (Jesse McCartney), a smug golden boy who excels at sports, academics, and date rape. When Reilly kills a story Gonzo wrote about bullying to protect his athlete buddies, Gonzo does what outraged high-school journalists have done since time immemorial: start an underground paper of his own.
He has a staff of misfits eager to shine a light on Parker Prep’s seedy underbelly, including Horny Rob (Griffin Newman), who has a thing for girls that the big studs reject; Ming Na (Stefanie Y. Hong), who wants to expose the awful secrets of the popular girls (“godless whores”); Schneeman (Edward Gelbinovich), whose wedgie-oriented abuse spurred Gonzo to anti-bully activism in the first place; and Evie (Zoe Kravitz), a once-popular girl who’s been relabeled a slut and wants revenge on Reilly.
This is the first feature film by writer/director Bryan Goluboff, who wrote “The Basketball Diaries,” a rather different examination of teens. “Beware the Gonzo” belongs to the genre of Indie Comedies About Precocious Kids Who Act Like Adults, and follows the usual trajectory. At first it’s darkly funny, with Gonzo and Reilly threatening each other as if the fate of the world rested on their actions, and with clever bursts of dialogue (as when Gonzo asserts that a particular image “grabs the eyes by the balls of the throat”). But eventually the tone shifts toward drama, the mock-seriousness of the situation turning into real seriousness. This happens so frequently, especially in teen comedies, that by now the way to be different would be to NOT get all somber in the end.
Miller, from TV’s “Californication” and “Royal Pains,” does the brooding anger thing well, believable but not too self-absorbed. (A lot of times, you just want to smack these angst-y kids. Not so much with Gonzo.) The rest of the young cast is likewise promising — Jesse McCartney may have a future as an oily villain in the James Spader tradition — and Amy Sedaris and Campbell Scott steal their handful of scenes as Gonzo’s concerned parents. “Beware the Gonzo” can make no claims on brilliance, or even originality, but it runs smoothly and earns its share of laughs. And I think Hunter S. Thompson, the journalist who inspired Gonzo’s nickname, would approve of his attitude. Fight the power, privileged teens!
B- (1 hr., 34 min.; )