Review: Rooney Mara, Brie Larson Have a Lesson Plan of Their Own in “Tanner Hall”

There are more than a handful of narratives going on in “Tanner Hall,” a nostalgic drama about four girls’ coming of age at an all girls’ school, and more than its share happen offscreen. The directorial debut of Francesca Gregorini and Tatiana von Furstenberg, the daughters of pop culture royalty as the scions of Barbara Bach and Ringo Starr and Diane and Egon von Furstenberg, respectively, it is a film that lives far away from that world with characters who want to break free.

In the two years since “Tanner Hall” first debuted at the Toronto Film Festival, two of the film’s four leads have done just that in their careers — Rooney Mara, who plays the knowing-beyond-her-years Fernanda, will next be starring in “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” and Brie Larson, the type to seduce her English teacher as the mischievous Kate, was the reason to watch Showtime’s “United States of Tara.” No doubt that was the reason Anchor Bay stepped up to distribute “Tanner Hall” now and in fact, it’s their assured performances, as well as that of Amy Ferguson, that are the reason to see the otherwise shaky film.

TannerHallBrieLarsonRooneyMara “Tanner Hall” doesn’t appear that way at first glance, as Fernanda is driven to boarding school by a mother she clearly loathes, wistfully recalling in voiceover a childhood memory about confronting fear by saying, “Everything worth anything is both terrifying and beautiful.”

As it is in such films as these where there’s no inspirational teacher at the center, such grandiose statements within the opening minutes suggest that the education at Tanner Hall won’t be necessary in the classrooms, but in the knotty personal lives of its students and each of the four girls it follows has a cross to bear. Fernanda gets swept up in a tenuous relationship with the much older Gio (Tom Everett Scott) outside of the school’s gates, Kate endlessly teases Mr. Middlewood (Chris Kattan) between readings of Camus, the troublemaking Victoria (Georgia King) suffers from mommy issues, and the shy Lucasta (Amy Ferguson) is having trouble coming to terms with her sexuality.

A nimble score from Roger Neill and the introduction of Kattan and Amy Sedaris as the school’s primary faculty suggest that we’re in store for a comedy, but “Tanner Hall” goes to some dark places that make the whole endeavor tonally incongruous. Delicate as their names imply, Fernanda and Lucasta’s storylines actually tap into the youthful desperation of wanting to be understood but perhaps too self-conscious to realize what’s going on around them.

Yet those moments are broken up with broadly comic interludes of an eager-for-sex Sedaris straddling Kattan or of Kattan’s Mr. Middlewood lustfully sniffing the pencil that he’s seen Kate chewing during class in ways that are likely to alienate audiences who came in for one thing and get another. The film’s low budget doesn’t announce itself immediately, particularly with the attention to detail in the film’s set design, but the isolation of these characters with the exception of only a couple scenes involving group activities only enhances the strange, parallel reality that Gregorini and von Furstenberg have created.

Oddly, there does seem to be some accuracy in depicting teenage life with wild highs and lows that would be considered out of place in other semi-autobiographical work and the film’s young directors deserve credit for getting a certain feel right, if not the film as a whole. “Tanner Hall” seems to be a learning experience both for the people onscreen as much as the ones off it, leaving the expectation that there’s better to come.

“Tanner Hall” opens in limited release on September 9th.

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