Tanner Hall (2009)
95 min., rated R.
Grade: C +
Playing at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2009, "Tanner Hall" is now just seeing the light of day. It's easy to see why since it marks the shaky writing and directorial debut of two novice filmmakers, Francesca Gregorini and Tatiana Von Furstenberg. Episodic and underdeveloped, the film gets by with fine performances, a palpable autumn feel, and an overall empathy for most of the characters.
The sensible Fernanda (Rooney Mara) enters her senior year at Tanner Hall—a "majestic but crumbling" all-girls boarding school in New England—where she reunites with her two best girlfriends, minxy Kate (Brie Larson) and tomboyish Lucasta (Amy Ferguson). Adding a kink in their friendship is the new semester arrival of Victoria (Georgia King), a childhood acquaintance of Fernanda's and the daughter of her mother's college friend. Fernanda's mom gets her out of the dorms by having her own adult friends sign her out for a night or weekend. Gio (Tom Everett Scott), the boyfriend of one of her mom's friends, takes a liking to Fern and they begin an affair. Meanwhile, Victoria causes problems when she suggests getting the dorm key and sneaking off campus with the girls.
"Tanner Hall" doesn't get off to the sturdiest of feet. The tone is lurchy and the story takes forever to take shape or find any real discernible point. Gregorini and Furstenberg aim for a folkloric Old World atmosphere, but never settle for a specific time frame. There's also talk of mid-terms, but never do we see much studying. Oh well, because "Tanner Hall" is more about these four girls that become well-drawn and sympathetic as the film progresses. Initially, Victoria seems to be painted only as a lying, manipulative snob with an alcoholic mommy, but she's more blemished than that. Amy Sedaris and Chris Kattan receive an overgenerous amount of scenes 'tooning around as the sexually frustrated heads of the school stuck in a passionless marriage. This subplot, as well as Kate being the "American Beauty"-style obsession of Kattan, feels divorced from some completely different movie.
Prior to making an impression in David Fincher's "The Social Network" and later taking the titular role in "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," Rooney Mara seems ready here and capable of great future projects. She's the center of this thing and almost holds it together. Almost.