When she was a little girl, willowy teenager Fernanda (Rooney Mara) witnessed her friend, the headstrong Victoria (Georgia King), intentionally let the family bird escape when she opened its cage. Speaking in voiceover about the event, Fern muses, "Until then, I only thought bad things happened by accident." It's one of several early instances of hammy narration from our protagonist, her words seeming to come from a book on really bad ruminative chestnuts and nonsensical platitudes. These do not bode well for the film to follow, but the picture fortunately moves away from its cornball leanings and improves significantly as it goes. The writing-directing debuts of Francesca Gregorini and Tatiana von Furstenberg, "Tanner Hall" is a quaint, uneven, but delicately felt coming-of-age drama set in an undetermined time period (it could be the '70s, it could be today) at a persistent, dreamlike New England boarding school where the four central characters almost seem to exist amongst the ghosts of fellow classmates and faculty. At once out-of-touch and universal, the film takes up space on its own plane of existence. Slowly, but surely, the people on screen become more familiar to the viewer.
The new school year at Rhode Island's looming, foliage-covered Tanner Hall is just beginning for Fernanda, sensual Kate (Brie Larson), and quietly confused Lucasta (Amy Ferguson) when the appearance of the rebellious, snooty Victoria, back from living in the UK, throws a wrench into their comfort zones. Victoria manipulates her way into their dorming house, then into their lives when she snatches the building key that gives them access to come and go as they please. As the season presses on, each girl has her own rite of passage to experience. For Fernanda, it is her dangerous relationship with olderand marriedfamily friend Gio (Tom Everett Scott). For Kate, it is her not-as-innocent-as-she-thinks flirtation with English teacher Mr. Middlewood (Chris Kattan), in a rocky marriage himself to dorm mother Mrs. Middlewood (Amy Sedaris). Victoria must face the effect her uppity, boozy mother has had on her personality development. As for Lucasta, she is put into an identity struggle when her male friend Hank (Shawn Pyfrom) shows romantic interest in her and she can't seem to reciprocate the feelings.
Though "Tanner Hall" features a straightforward, interconnecting narrative, it works even better as a symbolic mood piece. There is an outside landscape occasionally glimpsed beyond the school's property, but also a vacuum that keeps sucking them back to the desolate institution they've been sentenced to by barely-there parents. Writer-directors Francesco Gregorini and Tatiana von Furstenberg, aided by cinematographer Brian Rigney Hubbard, have given the proceedings an indelibly chilly look and feel, the fiery autumnal colors of the leaves and trees roughly matching the characters' raging hormones. If the individual storylines are on the basic side, where they lead is more open-ended than pat as they begin to understand for the first time the power they hold as women. It can be misused, as in the way Kate unknowingly messes with Mr. Middlewood's emotions. It can be misjudged, as in Fern's mistaken belief that she's falling in love with Gio. It can be squandered, as when Victoria allows her pettiness to get the best of her. Or, it can simply take some time to understand, as Lucasta finds out the more she starts to accept herself and her sexuality. By the end, they're all wiser to not only the tough truths of the world, but about their own abilities as adolescents on the verge of adulthood.
There is an empathy in "Tanner Hall" that overcomes its familiar trappings and iffy low-budget scope. Extras to fill out the student body are sparsely used, and schoolwork is very nearly a non-entity were it not for a couple too-brief scenes set in the gym and classroom. There is also a tonally-off subplot involving the comic exploits of Mr. and Mrs. Middlewood that feels like it should be in a completely different movie. Since this is obviously leading to the dissolution of a marriage, it might have been nice to give the talented Amy Sedaris (2008's "Snow Angels
") and Chris Kattan (2002's "Undercover Brother
") roles crying out to be played and treated more seriously, but too often aren't. What is assured is the thoughtful treatment of the girls and the performances of the four leads, with Rooney Mara (2010's "The Social Network
") heading up the charge as Fernanda in a turn that suggests great things to come. "Tanner Hall" might only take place over about three months' time, but where Fernanda and her peers stand at the conclusion is in stark contrast to where they are at the start. By exhibiting compassion and learning to stand up for themselves and each other, there is a newfound rebirth that takes place. They don't need classes for that.