Contest, written and directed by Anthony Joseph Giunta, is a family movie. It will appeal to tweens and teens because of the stars and the dynamite music included on the DVD. Others can appreciate it on the level of the social dynamics: how teenagers function beyond what adults see and want to understand. The film embraces important messages, not only about anti-bullying but about shared values, love, ethics and respect for other human beings, regardless of background. With regard to its universal themes, it is a film that throws out a wide net and will catch more than its share of fish.
This is partly due to the range of characters and the savvy, clever plot twists in a well drawn story. Tommy Dolan (an appealing and appropriately ironic and clever Danny Flaherty) and Gran (a sweet, kind Mary Beth Peil) are on uneven economic footing. Gran may lose the lease on her pizza place, unless she comes up with the necessary money. Tommy who lost his parents in a car accident lives with Gran. He is continually bulled and demeaned at school, always the outsider. After he reads and confiscates the letter from the landlord about the money, he will be “the man of the house and solve the problem.” He allows Gran to enroll him in a TV cooking contest (risking an exponential bullying disaster when his classmates find out). He is a great chef, so he and his team will have a reasonable chance of winning this contest. If they win, not only will he have his own show, he will secure a monetary prize which will go for the lease.
Matt Prylek (a well modulated performance by Kenton Duty), who is the most popular kid and Tommy’s bullying nemesis, ends up being on Tommy’s cooking team as part of an anti-bullying campaign. He does this in self-interest to get on the good side of the principal who will then allow him to stay on the swim team where he is a star. Matt’s older brother and guardian Kyle (Kyle Dean Massey in an oily and nefarious performance), is in cahoots with the landlord who has the lease on Gran’s pizza place. Kyle and his friend, the landlord, concoct a twisted scheme to have Tommy’s team go down in flames so Tommy will never win the money and his own lucrative show. Gran will vacate and the landlord can redevelop the area, making a huge amount of money.
During the cooking competition challenges, we understand the official and unofficial social dynamics in the school. The unofficial student culture keeps bullying entrenched despite the “official” anti-bullying campaign. Some behaviors are irreversible, especially when the adults and educators mean well, but are rather clueless about how to change the ethics of what is happening in the kids’ social system. This expose is brilliantly written and like many of the great movies of this genre. Too bad educators are so overwhelmed that they can’t really take these subjects and themes to heart and effect better results with their attempted reforms. The kids know it and the bullies make sure to play the system to the hilt as does Matt and his swim team buddies and fans.
However, what Matt doesn’t plan on is another social dynamic, Tommy’s loving Gran and her great good will toward him and others. The dichotomy between who she is and who the slimy landlord influencing who his brother is, wakes Matt up. Matt realizes there is another way to be, especially after he gets closer to Tommy and discovers the similarities between them. Nevertheless, because of Kyle’s machinations, the struggle intensifies in Matt whether to sabotage the team’s effort or help the team succeed. Another problem is that Gran discovers how Tommy has taken the burden of paying off the lease on himself. Heightening the drama and suspense is Tommy’s budding relationship with Sarah O’Malley (the lovely and talented Katherine McNamara). Will he get to be with her or is she going to dump on him like everyone else seems to? Will Tommy’s team lose as the landlord and Kyle’s clever plan have assured it will, effecting a sabotage of a sabotage?
The Contest is surprising and savvy. If you look for the deeper themes and social criticisms you will find them. Why? Because there is a level of reality duplicated in the plot and subject matter that mirrors life. The film is valuable for its message to adults. It is extremely valuable for its message to kids about ethics, good will and respect. And the music is cool. I’d say Contest is a keeper. After the DVD’s feature, the music videos, interviews and other footage as offered assets are the icing on the cake.