Chris Colfer’s screenwriting debut fails to electrify audiences

Several years ago, when he was still in high school and his Hollywood career had not yet begun, Chris Colfer wrote “Struck by Lightning,” a quick-witted, but ultimately futile film. Yet with an all-star cast of up-and-comers, including Rebel Wilson (“Pitch Perfect”), Sarah Hyland (“Modern Family”) and Ashley Rickards (“Awkward”), along with a group of pros including Allison Janney, Dermot Mulroney and Christina Hendricks, “Lightning” should have been destined for success. But just as lightning never strikes the same place twice, the film is nowhere near the quality of 22-year-old Colfer’s profound work on “Glee.”

However, it is clear that Colfer has taken a cue from his television role. “Lightning” deals with the same high school hierarchy struggles as “Glee,” as it includes underlying themes of being different and accepting yourself for who you are, though perhaps with a slightly harsher edge than Fox’s musical sensation.

“Lightning” follows Carson Phillips (Colfer), a cynical, misunderstood youth living in the middle of nowhere with his severely medicated and verbally abusive mother (Allison Janney). Carson aspires to become a journalist for The New Yorker, vowing to earn a degree from Northwestern University and leave his miserable upbringing far behind him. An ambitious and clever teen, Carson seeks to add a bit of pizazz to his resume by starting a school literary magazine. The only obstacle, of course, is finding recruits. Desperate to make his dream come true, Carson blackmails the most popular kids at school, forcing them to contribute to his magazine.

Any attachment the audience builds to Colfer’s character in the film’s two hours is, unfortunately, thrown away by Colfer’s decision to have Carson actually be struck by lightning in the end. Even though the audience knows it is coming — the film opens with the event occurring — it is still a shocking, pointless cinematic choice. It has no relevance to the film’s themes or plot, and makes it seem as if Colfer is simply giving up on his screenplay.

What he lacks in storytelling finesse, Colfer makes up for in witty dialogue and acting ability. His aptitude for writing snappy conversations is reminiscent of the scripts of cult sensations “Juno,” “Mean Girls” and “Clueless.” Colfer’s acting talents also shine — he steps away from the flamboyance of his “Glee” character Kurt Hummel and creates an entirely different character who is capable of leading a feature film.

Although abrupt and, at times, strangely existential, “Struck by Lightning” is a pleasant trip through the mayhem of high school. As always, Janney delivers a rock-solid performance, making her near villainous character seem sympathetic at times. Similarly, Wilson produces her typical brand of fun — pathetic with a tinge of inner confidence. The cast shines as if Colfer had each actor in mind when he wrote the screenplay — Janney actually was Colfer’s inspiration for her role. With more control and less reliance on unnecessary twists, “Struck by Lightning” would be a truly standout film, but is instead a striking yet flawed debut for Colfer’s screenwriting career.

Isabel Jones is a staff writer. Email her at film@nyunews.com.

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