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Dustin Putman

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Freshman Orientation  (2007)
2 Stars
Directed by Ryan Shiraki
Cast: Sam Huntington, Kaitlin Doubleday, Mike Erwin, Marla Sokoloff, Heather Matarazzo, Bryce Johnson, Jud Tylor, John Goodman, Rachel Dratch, Ashley Sherman, Sherrie Marina, Meagen Fay
2007 – 92 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for strong sexual content, language and some drug use).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, August 23, 2007.
"Freshman Orientation" premiered at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival under its more provocative original title, "Home of Phobia," and the three and a half years it has taken to reach theater screens is a mystery. The delay of the film—an R-rated college comedy that might have actually found some mainstream success with the right marketing—now finds it coming out less than two months after the deplorable Adam Sandler-starrer "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry," which shared the similar premise of a hetero male posing as gay. "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry" used this plot to present two hours of smug stereotypes shallowly posing as an earnest Public Service Announcement. "Freshman Orientation" falls into the trap of the occasional exaggeration or caricature, but it is smarter in its humor and tends to catch the viewer off-guard with its perceptive treatment of some touchy subject matter.

Clay Adams (Sam Huntington) is a typical Midwestern 18-year-old with sex on the brain 24/7—something that he hopes to score more of now that he is away from home as a college freshman. While attending a campus party, he is smitten upon first sight with the pretty Amanda (Kaitlin Doubleday). Through a series of misunderstandings and deceptions, Clay befriends Amanda under the guise of being an out-and-proud gay classmate. As the two of them start to hang out and grow closer, Clay genuinely begins to fall in love with her. Amanda likes Clay, too, which makes her equally guilty about her own dishonesty; her initial interest in Clay was all a part of an immature sorority initiation.

In helming "Freshman Orientation," first-time writer-director Ryan Shiraki walks a constant tightrope, always one step away from taking that fatal misstep that would ruin the whole act. Admittedly, the film is far from perfect. The broader side of its humor isn't without some pigeonholing—the use of Britney Spears' "Hit Me Baby, One More Time" is (1) patently annoying and (2) a dead-giveaway that the film has sat on the shelf for years, and a scene depicting a person's crash course on gay vocabulary, fashion and pop-culture would be more at home on a sitcom like "Will & Grace." Additionally, the plotting is formulaic down to a science, and if one suspects there is going to be a big, dramatic scene where Clay and Amanda find out they have been lying to each other, you would be right. Still, these problems remain minor bothers amidst the bigger picture because the writing of the characters is a step above the norm and the story, if clichéd, doesn't talk down to the viewer.

Unlike in "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry," the actual gay characters in "Freshman Orientation" aren't unequivocally flamboyant, swishy drama queens, and when Clay's best friend and roommate, the virginal Matt (Mike Erwin), is revealed to be harboring a secret crush on Clay, it strikes an honest and sobering note that isn't made into a joke. Another positive homosexual portrayal is Rodney, played by a winning, against-type John Goodman (2007's "Evan Almighty"), a kind bartender whom Clay confides in. As for African American "dyke" Bessie (the amusing Ashley Sherman), she is given a very funny satirical edge. When word of a hate crime gets out on campus and Bessie plans to fight back, her impassioned reply to a person trying to silence her is a gem: "I've been quiet for three thousand years!"

Most of the other characters are written with an astute touch, as well. Clay isn't consistently likable—indeed, he is rather shallow at the start and doesn't always do the right thing—but it is in his personal flaws that he becomes human. Sam Huntington (2006's "Superman Returns") is ideal for the part, an affable and relatable actor who seems to understand who Clay is and runs with the part. As love interest Amanda, Kaitlin Doubleday (2005's "Waiting") isn't some vacant-eyed beauty, but is written to be an intelligent free-thinking quite aware of how easily she could become a boozy, materialistic ex-sorority sister like her mother (Meagen Fay) if she allowed it to. After a night of fun together, Clay tells her, "You are so not the person I expected you to be." Amanda's response, and the vibrant Doubleday's delivery of it, is right on target: "Yeah, but nobody really is, right?"

Time and again, director Ryan Shiraki averts expectations of who we expect each person onscreen to be. Thus, Clay's ex-girlfriend, the newly lesbianic Marjorie (Marla Sokoloff), is hostile to his face but proves to still have a soft spot for him in her heart; the Very Drunk Chick (an excellent Rachel Dratch) is a ten-year-plus college student with words of well-earned wisdom to give when she isn't passed out on a bathroom floor or in an alleyway; Professor Jackson (scene-stealing Sherrie Marina) isn't as tough as she makes herself out to be and shows great compassion for Clay's travails in a late scene set at the library; and even sorority head Serena (Jud Tylor) isn't just a one-note bitch, but actually takes the steps necessary to prove to Amanda that womanizing frat jock Tazwell (Bryce Johnson) isn't worth her time.

The moral behind "Freshman Orientation" is easy to guess but still valuable—embrace human diversity and treat everyone different from yourself with the equality they deserve. Thankfully, said lesson develops naturally and isn't jammed down the viewer's throat like the hypocritical sermonizing in "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry." Rough around the edges though it may be—the encore presentation of "Hit Me Baby, One More Time" nearly ruins the final scene—"Freshman Orientation" is blessedly shrewd where it counts and deserves more notice than it has so far gotten. Its theatrical outlook is limited—it is opening on one screen in Los Angeles before moving out to a handful of other select cities—but a brighter chance for discovery is hopefully only a DVD release away.
© 2007 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman