“I remember discovering the power of words and using them to slip into a world of my own,” Carson Phillips can be heard saying in a voiceover at the start of “Struck by Lightning,” a statement that no doubt was kicking around in the head of Chris Colfer long before he put them in the film’s script or said them out loud as Carson. For fans of the “Glee” star, his first role outside of Kurt Hummel could be interpreted as his own personal version of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” except instead of wondering what would be, it wonders what was for a high school student who dies before seeing any of his many ambitions fulfilled.
“Struck By Lightning” doesn’t have such lofty goals as a movie, falling back onto familiar tropes of teenage angst with the same downward cast eye toward small-town America that occurs with nearly every film that’s set there. Whereas “Saved,” director Brian Dannelly’s last foray into high school, had a certain warmth and gentility even as it sent up the hypocrisy of a Christian preparatory, there’s a far more austere feel to Clover High, a place where classrooms feel empty even when they’re filled with students and the few adults that dare peek in their heads serve as advisers rather than teachers – Angela Kinsey appears as a loopy guidance counselor fixated on freebies and Brad William Henke may be addressed as the school’s principal but consults only on such issues as the yearbook and student council. Carson sees the power vacuum and uses it to his advantage when he blackmails a group of the school’s most popular students into writing for his newly created literary magazine, forcing the requisite cheerleader (Sarah Hyland), goth girl (Ashley Rickards), and type-A perfectionist (Allie Grant), among other traditional staples, to engage in the self-reflection he feels he’s well past.
That the film realizes this while Carson does not is the most interesting wrinkle of “Struck by Lightning,” though it’s ultimately the film’s strongest attempt to dig any deeper than the scattered thoughts of a teen disappointed that his life isn’t moving fast enough. Attempts to offset its extreme image of a broken home – bitter, divorced parents (Allison Janney and Dermot Mulroney) who seem unlikely to birth a child of Carson’s fair-haired complexion or age – with comedy dripping in irony whether it’s the impersonal rendition of Boyz II Men’s “Yesterday” played on ukelele at Carson’s funeral or the snotty retorts the soon-to-be-departed always has at the ready to beg off actual conversations with others only diminish its impact even further, allowing the mind to wander onto other things such as the odd camera placement in some scenes. (A scene between Janney and a doctor, played by Ken Marino, is shot from outside his office with reflections of cars passing by, which may sound as if it denotes some symbolism but is emblematic of little except for either the need for some film school classes or curious production roadblocks.)
Still, Colfer’s unusual screen presence is something that makes the film difficult to dismiss completely. While he and others were right to believe a film could be built around him, “Struck by Lightning” plays to his perceived strengths of being a calm dispenser of withering remarks without the vulnerability that made him the emotional center of “Glee,” as much a product of the character Colfer wrote for himself as the ones he’s developed for those around him. All the actors in “Struck by Lightning” may be recognizable from other films and TV shows, but their characters aren’t familiar in any human way, their failure to engage with each other a key reason why they fail to engage an audience. Carson complains there’s “nothing to do in Clover between Jamba Juices and cow tipping,” but those watching it shouldn’t feel the same way.