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SXSW Review: “The Prank” Is Quite the Cool Stunt

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | March 15th, 2022

“The Prank” director Maureen Bharoocha ©Bernd Reinhardt

The Prank (Maureen Bharoocha, 2022) 3 out of 4 stars.

Rita Moreno is such a villain! She’s gone through life leaving nothing but death and destruction in her wake. It’s about time she got her comeuppance. One only wonders why no one has stood up to her before. An ex of mine always quoted her Portuguese father saying, “To a brute be twice a brute,” and I’d say that certainly applies here. Well, I am happy to report that to all who desire Moreno’s downfall, Maureen Bharoocha’s The Prank delivers. She’s toast.

In all seriousness, who doesn’t love Moreno? Her career goes all the way back to the 1950s—with roles like that small but memorable one in Singin’ in the Rain, as Zelda—and continued through the 1960s with the original Oscar-winning West Side Story (Moreno took home Best Supporting Actress) and all the way up to its 2021 Oscar-nominated remake (with so much more in between). She’s also an EGOT. Born in 1931, she is now a nonagenarian, which seems absolutely incredible, given how vibrant she appears, always, and no less so here. I want what she’s having …

In The Prank, Moreno plays Mrs. Wheeler, a high-school physics teacher who is mean as sin; she would say she just has rigorous standards. When she tells her AP class that she’ll fail them all on the midterm because somebody cheated, it’s the kiss of college-acceptance death for young Ben Palmer (Connor Kalopsis, Fox’s Outmatched series), who sees no way forward without top grades. His bestie, Mei Tanner (Ramona Young, Netflix’s Never Have I Ever series), who just goes by Tanner, is outraged on his behalf, and offers to help. How? Well, though not nearly uptight about school as he is, she is a brilliant coder.

l-r: Connor Kalopsis and Rita Moreno in THE PRANK ©Sneak Preview Productions

Outlandish as it may appear, the two decide to frame Wheeler for the murder of a missing student, creating fake online evidence that is designed to eventually fall apart should law enforcement decide to investigate. They don’t actually want her to go to jail, but just to suffer. Well, ha ha, the joke’s on them, for the surrounding community’s almost-universal dislike of the teacher, who at one time taught most of them, including police officers and TV journalists, takes over. Who has time to look too closely for the truth when it’s easier to prosecute a hated figure?

If this sounds like a horrible prank, it is. Nevertheless, Bharoocha (Golden Arm) has a mostly firm handle on the tone, keeping it bouncy and fun even as things spiral a little too far out of control. And then, even better, once we think matters have run their nasty course, she flips another switch and takes us in a whole new direction, much to our delight.

Screenwriters Rebecca Flinn-White and Zak White deserve much of the credit here, but Bharoocha moves matters nicely forward, assisted by her very game cast. As great as Moreno may be, Kalopsis and Young join her bit for over-the-top bit. If not every moment works equally well, the net result is still a largely entertaining thriller-comedy-horror hybrid. Forget the prank, that’s a nifty stunt.

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), as well as a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is a former cohost of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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