Struck by Lightning: Once upon a time there was a boy

Chris Colfer’s Struck by Lightning is an odd little gem of a film that suffers more than a bit from being excessively clever, too personal, and uncertain about its relationship with magical realism. But it’s this unevenness that’s made it linger for me — not because of the film it could have been, but because of the way its flaws make it feel so true.

Which isn’t to say SBL isn’t laugh-out-loud hilarious.  It is, and I lost a lot of lines to audience laughter.  While some of that was the nature of a highly responsive audience, the screening being both the premiere and filled with fans, I think that’s going to happen once the film is in general release too.  I’m going to have to see it again just to catch some of the zingers that I missed.

But it’s its quiet moments that work best. Like his acting, Colfer’s script is at its most adept when it’s listening and forcing you to live with the spaces in things; sometimes stuff is so terrible, there’s really nothing to say.

Scenes between Carson (Colfer) and his mother (Alison Janney) and Carson and his grandmother (Polly Bergen) are some of the best, although Carson has two big angry blowups at school that are somewhat agonizing to watch. They’re the righteous tantrums most of us who were bullied outsiders in high school probably fantasized about having, but instead of being moments that lead to change and victory they’re just met with a sort of stunned and exhausted silence.

Moments like that make watching the film feel profoundly personal but deeply murky; the temptation to decide the film contains truths about either Colfer’s life or our own is high and unpleasant, and a central conversation about the nature of ambition (someone has to be wildly successful, why shouldn’t Carson dream and work for it to be himself?) is both immensely truthful and feels weirdly naive. It’s a moment that should inspire a younger viewer and perhaps inspire regret in an older one, but it’s also awkward; because of who is in the scene it also reminds of us just how often we don’t like people who want things, or get them.

Ultimately, SBL has a great deal of compassion for people who do horrible things: a cheerleader who is cruel, a mother who sabotages; as well as for people it paints as cowards: the boys who won’t come out, the father who explicitly tries to forget his first family by neglecting to mention them to his second. It also gives us, briefly, the internal voices of the cardboard cutouts that were often the avatars of horror in many people’s high school experiences and makes them as human and lost as anyone else’s.

SBL also gives us a story about friendship that could have been ruined by veering down a “weird girl has crush on outcast boy” path. That alone is remarkable, but in keeping with a film that’s all about desire, but — for all it’s discussed — is almost never about sex.

Ultimately SBL is a very funny film about the beauties of sadness, desire and anger.  It’s neither a perfect film, nor a happy one, but it is a little victorious regardless of whether you choose to have a Watsonian or Doylist experience of it. Despite, or perhaps because of, that it also lingers like a burn and raises one particular question that can’t help but feel terrible to me: what would have happened to Carson if he hadn’t gotten out of Clover in the way he did?

6 thoughts on “Struck by Lightning: Once upon a time there was a boy”

  1. “[…]Carson has two big angry blowups at school that are somewhat agonizing to watch. They’re the righteous tantrums most of us who were bullied outsiders in high school probably fantasized about having, but instead of being moments that lead to change and victory they’re just met with a sort of stunned and exhausted silence.”

    Unfortunately, unlike those “most of us,” I was one of the rest who actually did, but twice, in middle school. It’s embarrassing to remember. I would love to see this movie, but it would also make me want to curl up in a ball and turn invisible, I think.

    1. I had a couple of blowups like that in middle school too, and the reaction I remember getting was one of the things that made the situation feel the most hopeless*.

      Because A) When you daydream about those moments, you imagine yourself poised, collected, strong and persuasive. You imagine yourself successfully shaming your tormentors. You don’t imagine yourself shrieking and crying (which is how it happened for me). And

      B) It was so not a triumph. What I wanted (all-consumingly) was for them to realize that I was a human being; that they were hurting me; that the way they were acting was neither cool, nor right, nor fair, nor okay; that they were sorry. What happened instead was, I was laughed at for breaking, and I let them win.

      *The other part is mostly this: they break your heart first when they keep telling you no one likes you; they break your heart worse when you realize you’ve let them make a part of you believe them.

  2. I’m really interested in seeing this movie with my sister, who is only a few years older than Chris Colfer, and who grew up queer in a town less than an hour away from Clovis. Having escaped such a town herself–without, fortunately, having to die to do it–I’m looking forward to seeing what she makes of this.

    1. It was a good film, but I think what makes it less than great is the unremittant terribleness of all of the adults. Not just in the way that kids think all adults are terrible, but truly terrible in ways that are terrible to adults, both watching and in the story. The mother was, if you look at it factually, abusive but it was given a quirky drunken gloss. The father was unconflicted in his abandonment and his use of platitudes to conceal it. The other adults were destructively and, in an odd way, knowingly naive in ways that damaged kids.

      To couple this terribleness, and the terribleness of the main characters life in general, with a 180 degree Hallmark realization of the joy in striving and then a death was just narratively overwrought. It was an admirable execution. But it really could have used a co-writer to look at the essence of the plot. To me, it felt farcical while trying to be earnest in its message, and that made it muddled, echoing your feeling of murkiness.

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