The smart, the fat, and the alienated

Hackers and Angus offer different movie visions of the high-school experience

Angus is much smarter because it relies on a cast of carefully chosen actors to raise the rather dull script to the level of gentle comedy. Considering how often the filmmakers could have slapped us in the face with a wet-mackerel kind of audience bid, they've created a modest, if overly virtuous, gem.

The title character, a fat, sullen, science-loving adolescent (Charlie Talbert, in a sweetly spontaneous feature film debut), has just entered high school and discovered his love for a junior varsity cheerleader named Rachel.

While Angus has earned modest acclaim as a football tackle and science student, he's mercilessly ribbed by his classmates because of his size. He's forced to languish in the shadows of teen dreamboat Rick (James Van der Beek), the quarterback on his appropriately named football team The Huskies, and boyfriend of Rachel.

All Angus has is a truck-drivin', arm-wrestlin' mom (Kathy Bates), a grandfather (George C. Scott) about to marry a woman 30 years younger than he, and a freckled, rat-faced, cry-baby best friend named Troy (Chris Owen), who turns out not to be such a best friend after he helps engineer the public humiliation of Angus at the Freshman Winter Ball.

Through this spectacle, Angus makes overt references to a teen classic it barely deserves to invoke--Brian DePalma's 1976 Carrie, which made a Gothic stab at precisely the same sore spot. Our protagonist stands against a glittering, velvety curtain in front of his whole class with Rachel. The contest has been rigged to play a practical joke on Angus--the faces of jeering, chortling classmates blur into a peanut gallery of loathing. Just as you expect a bucket of pig blood to drop from the auditorium ceiling, his humiliation turns out to be less theatrical, his revenge far less entertaining.

Angus is particularly timely in an era when obesity has gone from being a health risk to a moral failing. George C. Scott chides the perpetually sweaty Angus to accept that "you came from big people." If others don't like it, "screw 'em." This is, of course, easier said than done for a boy who's trying to find any reason at all to believe in himself.

And even when the film is painfully earnest with its underdog clichés, you're sufficiently enchanted by the actors' light touch to ride it out till the end. Once Angus makes his inevitable, impassioned plea for tolerance at the Freshman Winter Ball, you're a few steps ahead of the boy but happy to wait for him.

Hackers. United Artists. Jonny Lee Miller, Angelina Jolie, Fisher Stevens. Written by Rafael Moreu. Directed by Iain Softley. Opens September 15.

Angus. New Line. Charlie Talbert, Chris Owen, George C. Scott. Written by Jill Gordon, from a short story by Chris Crutcher. Directed by Patrick Read Johnson. Opens September 15.

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