It all begins with this dame called Emily, you see, a social climber who falls in with this bad-news crowd and ends up dead. Then this private dick — Brendan, who has no real business doing so — decides to make Emily’s problems his own, because this dame and this dick had a thing once upon a time, and maybe he even loved her. So with some help from a friend called Brain, Brendan follows Em’s trail of cryptic clues and half-answered riddles until it leads him deep into a drug-running criminal organization headed by the Pin (as in kingpin) and to a few discoveries about his ex — and about himself — that he might rather have left undiscovered. Heard it all before, you say? Just another tale of suffering and woe on the streets of the naked city? Maybe. Except that this film noir is cast in the eternal sunshine of the spotless Southern California suburbs, with their placid ocean-bluff views. (It was filmed in San Clemente.) And all the major characters live at home with Mom and Dad — not because of some failure to launch, but because they’re still in high school.

That may risk making Brick, the debut feature of writer-director Rian Johnson, sound like a latter-day companion piece to Alan Parker’s Bugsy Malone, the oddball 1976 musical in which Jodie Foster, Scott Baio and a handful of the era’s other reigning pip-squeak talent played at being some of history’s most infamous gangsters. But rest assured, Brick is no kitsch spectacle. It’s cool, Daddy-o, with characters who talk like refugees from a beat-poetry contest (the press notes come complete with a glossary of hepcat terms) and an enveloping mystery rooted in the most enigmatic lady in a lake (or drainage canal) since Laura Palmer washed up on the shores of Twin Peaks. Oh, and in Brick, the guns fire real bullets, not whipped cream.

The acknowledged influence here is the Pinkerton detective-turned-author Dashiell Hammett, and Johnson has most of Hammett’s moves down pat, from the vindictive vamp (drama queen Kara) to the alluring femme fatale (high-society girl Laura) to the blockheaded muscle (wife-beater-outfitted Tug) in the employ of the shadowy villain. Most of all, Johnson understands the elemental appeal of the grizzled loner hero who strives to raise himself above all the corrupting muck only to get pulled deeper into it, and in Brendan (played with brilliant, Bogart-ian cool by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), he’s found a natural successor to Sam Spade and the Continental Op, no matter that the character is barely old enough to drive. Slender and tall, with a mop of shaggy hair and wire-rimmed glasses, Brendan can blend inconspicuously into a crowd, but more often than not chooses to stand out, spouting his mouth off in a way that has a habit of getting people’s attention. He’s a star athlete when it comes to playing both sides against the middle. And though you wouldn’t guess it to look at him — which is the whole point — he’s nearly as quick with his fists as he is with his wit.

Brick isn’t especially profound — it’s mostly about the serpentine snarls of Johnson’s scenario and the skill with which he deploys them. To keep up with it, you need to keep your specs on. But what makes the film more than a mere act of homage (unlike Wim Wenders’ misbegotten Hammett) is how Johnson finds in the world of noir — with its brutes and bombshells, confidences traded on scraps of notepaper and allegiances that shift on a dime — a ready metaphor for high-school life as it feels from the inside, rather than how we usually see it in movies, which is to say filtered back through the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia. It’s also how Johnson pulls us into his world and keeps things oddly plausible, despite the intense stylization. In Brick, who you eat lunch with can forever alter your fate, parents are heard of but not seen (save for a devilishly funny moment in which the Pin’s mother serves up an afternoon snack) and each new day feels like it could be the most important of your life. If John Hughes had directed The Maltese Falcon instead of John Huston, it might have looked an awful lot like this.

BRICK | Written and directed by RIAN JOHNSON | Produced by RAM BERGMAN and MARK G. MATHIS | Released by Focus Features | At ArcLight Cinemas

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