Watching November Criminals, Sacha Gervasi’s plunge into high-school ennui and intrigue, I couldn’t help but wonder: Fuck, are we still making kids read The Catcher in the Rye? Ansel Elgort plays philosophy-obsessed outsider Addison Schacht, a kid who smart-assedly writes his 22-page college application essay on the topic of how he possesses no good qualities. He mentions that the college provided only a 3½-inch space to write that essay, so it’s clear that brevity numbers among those desirable qualities he lacks. The film opens with Addison mailing off this application, while he grandly quotes Virgil and David Bowie, so one would think his essay may become a kind of framing construction for the story, perhaps taking him on a journey to better understand himself. Instead, it’s never addressed again. What does happen: Addison’s friend gets shot to death in a coffee shop. Then Addison somehow falls into dealing drugs as he tries to solve his friend’s murder — but only half-assedly. What follows is something like Veronica Mars, only set in snowy D.C. and on heavy sedatives.
There’s a kind-of love story, too, between Addison and his beautiful best friend, Phoebe (Chloë Grace Moretz), who, very early on, turns to him in his car and stammers out that she wants to “do it” before she heads off to college — and she wants Addison to be the guy. That’s quite a great fantasy for Addison, but believable it is not. Neither is it necessary. Phoebe is often tossed aside in this story that grows increasingly unwieldy. Is November Criminals about Addison’s recently deceased mother? His leaving for college? His friend’s murder? It never focuses on any one of these storylines, which all become quite tiresome, but none more so than Addison’s fruitless quest to prove his dead friend Kevin (Jared Kemp) wasn’t a drug dealer, as the D.C. cops say he is.
Gervasi sets us up for some intrigue, where Addison is the only person in the whole crazy world who stands up to the cops for immediately thinking that Kevin — who is black — would be a drug dealer in a gang. That’s a compelling, if not white-savior-y, premise; if the cops are refusing to investigate this murder as something other than gang retaliation, then maybe they're are working to obscure some terrible truth. Gervasi points all signs to that possibility with multiple scenes where Addison stands up to the powers that be. In one, he even interrupts a high school assembly to proclaim to the school that they’re ridiculous for believing the cops and just assuming the black kid was in a gang. Right on! Only we find out that Kevin actually was in a gang and was dealing drugs. Oh. Take that, opponents of racial profiling.
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Worst of all, this would-be Holden Caulfield is barely tolerable as a human being. He’s exactly the kind of overzealous, self-important child who would write a 22-page essay in a 3½-inch space. We never do get to see any good qualities. Sitting with him for the duration of this film made me wish he would just go off to major in philosophy already and leave the rest of us alone.