“Do these kids have parents? It’s still outer suburbia.”
Writer/director Clay Liford knows a film titled Wuss better make sure its lead character is a living embodiment of the word. So even though he may be introduced as a self-deprecating nerd willing to laugh about living with his mom and working at the same high school he’s currently standing in to chat up a drunk, former “popular girl” at their ten-year reunion, his luck at cajoling her into visiting his darkened classroom can’t help but get interrupted by the vice principal heckling him as Mitch the Bitch (Nate Rubin). Any aspirations of being smooth disappear, the reality of his living situation becomes sad with the head of the woman in question (Arianne Martin’s Heather) getting clearer, and the awkward non-kiss to end their evening together only foreshadows the unfortunate events to come.
Out-of-place metal music juxtaposed against the film’s title in large white letters atop a frozen frame of Mitch aside, what follows is a surprisingly fun, pitch black comedy. Liford throws the clichéd teachers molding students dynamic on its head with a suburban school that has seen much better days. The educators are a mishmash of hardened veterans and new blood sucked back to the place they had hoped to leave behind after senior year while the kids show a steep increase in maturity and physicality perfectly proportional to the decrease in respect towards authority. Thrown to the wolves on his first day as a permanent substitute—the previous English teacher “fell out the window”—Mitch isn’t yet aware of the pecking order. The students rule these halls now and the adults merely hope to leave unharmed.
Sending a mouthy miscreant named Re-Up (Ryan Anderson) to the principal’s office as a display of power, however, quickly catches the newcomer up to speed. Jumped after school one night by this drug dealing hood and two cronies who all look ten years older and one hundred pounds of muscle heavier than their victim, Mitch is left psychologically neutered and scared to react. Only another student—Maddie Worth (Alicia Anthony)—shows pity and a desire to help courtesy of a disproportionate amount of clout with the school’s unsavory element compared to her good grades, band membership, and wallflower demeanor. Now caught inside a highly embellished teenage gunrunning ring, Mitch can’t hide once VP Wally Combs (Alex Karpovsky) threatens a full-scale cleansing by expulsion. He must make sure Maddie doesn’t get swept up in the wake.
From here lies a humorous depiction of every high school distortion you can think with the lecherously smarmy teacher (Tony Hale’s Mr. Crowder); all-talk, no-spine educator with fantasies of inappropriate relations with minors (Chris Gardner’s Louis); bullying sibling in the form of Mitch’s sister Kelly (Jenny Shakeshaft); and overgrown fifteen-year old that is Re-Up’s apartment dwelling, gun-toting, father of two. Liford has created a hotbed of comedic situations with this eccentric cast of stereotypes that only grows darker as he injects it with a healthy dose of taboo. Because while Mitch’s Dungeons and Dragons chums joke, wish, and laugh about having an affair with a minor, the friendship he begins to build with Maddie puts him on the cusp achieving it. With these characters, though, the thought of a happy ending is never truly brought to life.
And this is where Wuss excels at overcoming its limitations. In all honesty this film is nothing more than a series of comedic situations cobbled together for its pathetic lead to unwittingly be drawn into. Every step he takes to feign confidence and project authority ends up turning against him as those he hopes to punish demolish him instead. Whereas most Hollywood fare would try to transform him into some sort of unintentional hero, Liford looks to escalate the pain. When there’s an attempt to solve a problem with minimal damage things alternatively shake out to their darkest, most tragic potential. Goals to smartly achieve payback peacefully become crushed by implicit revenge with much higher stakes than any dweeby twenty-eight year old getting pistol-whipped by teens could ever accept.
It all culminates towards an interesting conclusion of mixed emotion and intriguingly calm reactions. Surrounded by caricatures flying off the handle to fuel their exaggeration (Jonny Mars’ Steve being the best example at turning on a dime), it’s Rubin and Anthony who ground everything in reality. Two people so alike in their willingness to detach from society, Mitch and Maddie come together in a spiritual kinship with no other desire than to excise themselves from the illegal chaos consuming them. So maybe the clichéd dynamic of teachers saving students remain after all. Maybe Liford is really expressing how today’s society makes it impossible to save every wayward kid, but worth it to save just one. Or maybe Wuss simply is what its surface projects—a fun bit of dark-edged escapism with a few satisfying laughs.