Disturbing Behavior

The movies have in the past found it profitable to cater for almost every
kind of paranoia there is. The California fantasy factories must be
getting a lot of business out of even the survivalist types—who, you would
think, must live many miles from the nearest Multiplex—since they managed
to get some black helicopters into The X-Files this summer. It is odd
then, in view of the generally adolescent-orientation of the industry, that kid
paranoia has been largely confined to horror movies. Disturbing Behavior,
directed by David Nutter to a screenplay by Scott Rosenberg means to do
something about this state of affairs.

The film stars James Marsden as Steve Clark, a new boy at Cradle Bay High
School in Cradle Bay, Washington. He comes from Chicago with his family and the
usual sort of movie baggage: a brother, Alan, who committed suicide, a death
which serves no other purpose in the movie but to make him the romantic hero’s
secret sorrow. He finds what appears to be the usual assortment of cliques at
CBHS. As a new friend, Gavin (Nick Stahl) explains to him on the first day,
there are the Motorheads, the Info-Geeks, the Skaters—and then there are
the Blue Ribbons, the straight-arrow kids who wear letter sweaters and hang out
at the “Yogurt Shoppe” and listen to Olivia Newton-John and Wayne Newton.

Wayne Newton? Isn’t that pitching it just a bit strong? The idea behind the
movie is that the Blue Ribbons, the good children and straight-arrows of Cradle
Bay, are actual living robots, programmed by a sinister “guidance counselor”
called Edgar Caldicott (Bruce Greenwood) who is actually a neuropharmacologist
and so a practitioner, as Steve instantly realizes, of “mind control.” This is
to teen culture what The Stepford Wives was to feminists: an acting out
of a paranoid nightmare in which traditional forms of socialization are actually
the result of some sinister plot by those—husbands, parents,
teachers—whose real motive is to enslave you.

The robots are unintentionally funny creatures who get a weird orange light
in their eyes and become violent when they are sexually aroused. “I need my
fluids,” says one of them robotically as he is engaged in a makeout session with
a girl in the opening scene of the film. The girl becomes sexually aggressive
(why did I never meet that kind of girl in high school?) and he kills her. Later
on, the prettiest of the Blue Ribbon girls, Lorna (Crystal Cass), attempts to
seduce Steve and, when she is rebuffed begins her own robotic chant: “It’s
wrong, bad, bad, wrong” and then attacks herself with shards of broken

The idea, I suppose, is that they are really afraid of sex and sublimate the
urge, which leads to aggression. This may be the only psychological theory about
sex that Hollywood is capable of understanding, but it certainly does believe in
it with a passion. Of course the good guys—Gavin and his albino friend
U.V. and the pretty girl from the wrong side of the tracks, Rachel (Katie
Holmes) are druggie slackers. Gavin and Steve spy on a meeting of the Blue
Ribbon society at which Gavin’s parents appear to invite Dr. Caldicott to give
Gavin the treatment—because he “spends too much time listening to rock
music and masturbating.” Gavin is horrified. “I’m a dead man; my parents sold me
out.” The next day he appears in a letter-sweater and a neat haircut and tells
Steve that he wants to apply himself.

The horror! The horror!

The only sympathetic adult is the janitor, Mr Newberry (William Sadler) who
pretends to be retarded but who really reads Kurt Vonnegut (where’s the
contradiction? you may ask) He conducts experiments by which he discovers that a
machine which emits a high pitch sound meant to drive rats away does not work on
the rats but does work on the blue ribbons. When Steve is turned over by his
parents (“We just want what’s best for you,” they say) to the doctor for him to
do his worst upon we are left to wonder how he is to escape zombification, or if
Mr Newberry will manage, Pied Piper like, to rid the town of blue ribbon rats
with his wonderful machine and his Pink Floyd war cry: “Hey, teacher, leave
those kids alone!”

Let’s hear it for mental retardation! After all, without it people wouldn’t
go to movies like this one.

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