Super-smart high school geek Bernard Flannigan (Skyler Gisondo) besieges the Livingston Board of Education on a near-daily basis with suggestions for 'improvements.' At the same school class president Veronica Krauss (Olivia Holt) maintains straight 'A' grades, volunteers for charity work and practices the violin as part of her attack plan to get into Yale. Only to be left devastated upon discovering she ranks second place on the academic registry. As part of a personal revenge plan to abolish the class ranking system, Veronica convinces Bernard to run for a seat on the board. Since there is no specific law prohibiting a student from doing so. However entering the perilous world of politics has the unexpected side-effect of opening the misfit teens' eyes to the richer aspects of life and each other.
Eric Stoltz directs this sweet-natured high school satire that comes across, at least in part, like a milder version of Election (1999). Both Skyler Gisondo's prim political savant Bernard and Olivia Holt's uptight academic over-achiever Veronica carry echoes of Reese Witherspoon as Tracy Flick. Adding to the Alexander Payne connection good old reliable Bruce Dern makes an appearance as Bernard's gruff but sagely Grandpa Oswald: a former political science lecturer who worked on Michael Dukakis' failed presidential campaign in 1988. Stylistically, Class Rank bears the same quirky flair Stoltz brought to his episodes of the hit high school musical show Glee. Which was itself derivative of indie auteurs like Wes Anderson (there are strong traces of Rushmore (1998) here too) and the Coen Brothers (alas, the Coens have yet to make their high school movie).
Very much a slow-burn, Class Rank ambles along good-naturedly with no clear direction at first, a little too enamoured of its own quirks and light social observations. A few self-consciously oddball reoccurring gags, including the two Indian girls (whose mom sits on the board of education) making snarky comments about the leads and the tape recordings sent by Bernard's Chinese pen pal/wannabe girlfriend in 'comically' broken English, smack of the mild xenophobia critics routinely flag in some of Wes Anderson's films. However, taken as an old-fashioned, charmingly low-key high school rom-com, Class Rank manages to sneak up on the viewer with a warm hug. Likable aspects abound including Bernard gently encouraging an autumnal romance between Grandpa Oswald and the editor-in-chief (Kathleen Chalfant) of a local newspaper. It is one of the few films willing to touch on romantic and sexual needs among the elderly without labouring the point or playing it for cheap laughs. Screenwriter Benjamin August shows a flair for subtle character details, drawing a parallel between the slow-thawing attraction between Bernard and Veronica and Oswald learning to let go of both his grandson and late wife's memory and embrace the future.
Without indulging in the clichéd angst and caricatured cruelty commonly found in other teen films, Class Rank weaves a certain indefinable charm. Strangely akin to Charles Schultz comic strips. It also touches on how intelligence and non-conformity can serve to isolate some kids from their peers. The central relationship is engaging and well played by Gisondo and Disney Channel alum Olivia Holt, latterly star of Marvel's Cloak & Dagger, who also share vocals on 'My Heart Beats a Symphony', a disarmingly sweet song played over the end credits.