Producers: Robert Ogden Barnum, Eric Binns, Christopher Kopp and Joey Stanton Director: Jordan Ross Screenplay: Ryan King Cast: Garrett Hedlund, Noah Schnapp, Jonny Weston, Victoria Justice, Ekaterina Baker, Kabby Borders, Jenna D’Angelo, Exie Booker, Michael Aaron Milligan, Joseph Castillo-Midyett, Craig Nigh and Kamran Shaikh Distributor: Vertical
A tutorial about how to craft an effective thriller might be in order for Ryan King and Jordan Ross, whose attempt to do so misfires on virtually every count—plotting, characterization, acting, pacing and (most importantly) cleverness. “The Tutor” proves that they’ve learned very little from the classics of the genre they’re trying to emulate; the result is like one of those mediocre telefilms ABC churned out in the 1970s–you’d turn off the set regretting having wasted ninety minutes of your life on them.
Ethan Campbell (Garrett Hedlund) is a well-regarded tutor to rich, often underperforming students (an opening montage introduces us to some of them), whose agent Chris (Joseph Castillo-Midyett) secures him lucrative short-term jobs. He seems to be content, though his relationship with his pregnant girlfriend Miriam (Victoria Justice) shows some signs of strain from his frequent work-related absences from their New York City apartment and his disinclination to get married.
Ethan’s latest gig takes him to a sumptuous estate in the suburbs where he’s to spend a week tutoring Jackson (Noah Schnapp), a strange kid who really doesn’t seem to need much help. Alone in the house except for his insolent cousin Gavin (Jonny Weston), Gavin’s girlfriend Teddi (Ekaterina Baker) and a cryptic butler (Kamran Shaikh), Jackson says he can’t reveal his father’s occupation, and remarks enigmatically that his mother was sent away.
It’s soon revealed that Jackson has done some research on Ethan and Annie, even collecting photos of the couple on his computer. Ethan considers the boy’s interest in him unhealthy, and refuses an offer to remain at the job for the entire summer even though the pay would be astronomical. At a dinner with Annie and some friends back in the city, he goes off on Jackson, only to find that the kid is there and has heard his tirade. Matters deteriorate from that point as Jackson accuses Ethan of attacking him and the tutor’s career craters as a result of the accusations. So does his relationship with Annie, who learns of his former connection with a woman who committed suicide.
Even the least astute viewer can guess where this story is headed, and it ends up at a lakefront home where Ethan and Jackson will finally confront their pasts and suspicions. Others will show up there as well.
Presumably King and Ross had in mind some sort of brain-twisting character study that would reveal its secrets gradually until the pieces of the puzzle fell into place. Unfortunately what pile up are lapses of logic and common sense. Nor do the performances carry one over the implausibilities. While Hedlund does a pretty good job of portraying a fellow whose self-confidently academic air gradually crumbles as his unreliable narration of his past comes unstuck, Schnapp goes overboard trying to embody a Norman Bates-like combination of awkwardness and cunning, and Weston’s arrogant preening screams “stay away” from his first appearance. Justice continues her effort to go beyond her juvenile Nickelodeon career without much luck.
Shot in Alabama, “The Tutor” benefits from some elegant locations, Mark Bankins’ production design and Brian Rigney Hubbard’s cinematography, but Chris Witt’s editing can’t overcome the lethargic pacing of the film’s first half or the messy revelations of the finale. Alexander Bornstein’s unremarkable score is often supplanted by pop songs and classical excerpts from works of Rossini, Handel and Mozart that are frankly a bit jarring.
It’s always nice to encounter low-budget thrillers that unexpectedly hit the mark. This stumbling, ineffectual effort isn’t one of them.