The potential for film-school pretension to run amok is daunting, yet Brick represents the recycling -- with conviction -- of cinema's most calloused and beloved genre, as applied to contemporary middle-class life. Johnson is drop-dead serious, and his strategy is a spectacle of nerve.
At the outset, we're given a found corpse and a brooding loner (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, late of 3rd Rock From the Sun and 2005's Mysterious Skin) contemplating grief and guilt. Flashing back in time, Gordon-Levitt's Brendan, bitterly nursing heartbreak like a good Bogart, is lured into the troubles of his ex-girlfriend -- a drug-dealing hophead -- with a single mysterious phone call. Thereafter, he starts snooping, figuring out "who she's been eating with," how deeply she was involved with local drug lord The Pin (Lukas Haas, with a cane and an army of henchmen), and why she was killed.
Every step of the process is a deft shadow of noir logic -- just showing up at the right party or beating the tar out of the right thug sends unspoken messages to "the right people." Brendan's relationship with the no-nonsense assistant vice principal (Richard Roundtree) at the Southern California high school wittily echoes the shamus-cop dealings of scores of postwar thrillers.
In this world, classes are never attended, the characters occupy the town's empty fringelands and alleys, and parents are all but invisible. At times the jazzy, tougher-than-leather lingo feels like a pose, but most of the time Johnson keeps his actors on a tight leash, and no one riffs: They all frigging mean it -- particularly Gordon-Levitt, who handles vast quantities of arch dialogue, much of it piercingly funny, with a Montgomery Clift-like earnestness. ("I gave you Jared to see him eaten," Brendan tells Roundtree's disciplinarian, "not to see you fed.")
Blessedly, Johnson does not indulge in narration, and his characters are never self-consciously cool, just boiling with misery. What's most beautiful about Brick, though, is the consistency with which the dynamics of yesteryear are used to backlight and dramatize teen angst. Here, the high-society femme with a yen for the outsider hero is a rich bitch with absent parents (Nora Zehetner); Mr. Big is an affected pusher who maintains an artificial air of menace only when he's not in his mother's kitchen, being served iced tea. Instead of cheap hotel rooms, we get cheap suburban bedrooms and semifinished basements; if Brendan is no longer "in" but "out," it's with the school's power clique, not the mob. Film noir's inherent cynicism is deployed here as a near-tears metaphor for pre-adult isolation, insecurity, and self-destruction; it's such a simple fusion of potent American cultural ideas that it ends up seeming seminal.