As Rian Johnson’s Brick unfolded, I felt increasingly thrilled. To quote Ebert from way back: I had never seen this movie before. A neo-noir that suggests that high school is as rough and dangerous as any LA bowery where Marlowe may roam, the movie shines largely through its terse, coded dialogue.

The films Brick made me think of while I was watching: Bugsy Malone (kids as gangsters), A Clockwork Orange (an impenetrable youth culture with its own slang), and, of course, The Maltese Falcon. (Lukas Haas’ character has a walking stick adorned with a falcon.)

Here’s an example:

Brendan Frye: Emily said four words I didn’t know. Tell me if they catch. Brick?

The Brain: No.
Brendan Frye: Or Bad Brick?
The Brain: Nope.
Brendan Frye: Tug?
The Brain: Tug? Tug might be a drink, like milk and vodka, or something.
Brendan Frye: Poor Frisco?
The Brain: Frisco? Frisco Farr was a sophomore last year, real trash. Maybe had a class a week, I didn’t know him then, haven’t seen him around.
Brendan Frye: Pin?
The Brain: Pin. The Pin?
Brendan Frye: The Pin, yeah?
The Brain: The Pin is kinda a local spook story, you know, the King Pin.
Brendan Frye: Yeah, I’ve heard it.
The Brain: Same thing, he’s supposed to be old, like 26. Lives in town.
Brendan Frye: Dope runner, right?
The Brain: Big time. See the Pin pipes it from the lowest scraper for Brad Bramish to sell, maybe. Ask any dope rat where their junk sprang and they’ll say they scraped it from that, who scored it from this, who bought it off so, and after four or five connections the list always ends with The Pin. But I bet you, if you got every rat in town together and said “Show your hands” if any of them’ve actually seen The Pin, you’d get a crowd of full pockets.
Brendan Frye: You think The Pin’s just a tale to take whatever heat?
The Brain: Hmm… So what’s first?
Brendan Frye: Show of hands.

The “Pin” lives in an ordinary ranch house–and the film’s best-remembered joke shows that he doesn’t live alone; his mother still dotes on him and treats him like a wayward teen, even as she frowns somewhat at his manner of dress and some of his associates. But while I probably laughed the loudest at the scene in the kitchen where she treats Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Brendan as just another classmate over for an afternoon snack, it also felt like the film’s biggest misstep.

It had the potential of draining all of the tension from the story by, in essence, exposing it to the light of day and to the reality of a world dominated by adults. ‘Til then, it sort of felt like a Very Special Episode of “Peanuts” (“You’re a low-level drug dealer, Charlie Brown”) or “Beverly Hills 90201,” some show where parents are never seen or heard, a universe that operates by its own set of rules.

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