Class of 1984

3 out of 5

Directed by: Mark Lester

While it can’t quite shake a B-movie veneer, Class of 1984 avoids ever winking at its viewer or wholly indulging in its lingering grindhouse-ness, suggestive of a more serious intention, even if it’s ultimately not up to the task of representing those.

Somewhat fitting a revenge-flick structure, with new do-good teacher Andrew Norris (Perry King) trying to get a feel for his new school, in which kids shrug their way through a metal detector with straight razors and teachers carry guns, he immediately comes at odds with Stegman’s (Timothy Van Patten) gang in the music class he teaches – the kid’s punked-up crew somewhere between disruptive class clowns and outright hostility. King and director Mark Lester (working from a script by Lester, Tom Holland, and John Saxton) balance this push and pull surprisingly well: the teacher holds his own believably, with the gang offering a believable escalation, the kind of peacocking that scares most of us but can also be faced up to with matching bravado in the right situation; Norris walks a fine line between bravery and foolishness.

And there’s also a tightrope act in the teacher’s more proactive attempts to confront the gang: he clearly cares about teaching, and his students, but he’s also prone to being egged on by Stegman’s hostilities, and the way the teen uses his below-18 status to constantly skirt the law. Norris tries to do the right thing, but is constantly told something along the lines of: “We know they’re bad, but they’re just kids.”

Meanwhile, the crimes we / Norris sees are escalating, from selling drugs to assault, and though it’s in our face, the fact that the film isn’t laying it on super thick (and that Van Patten portrays Stegman as something of a quirky joker) makes it too easy to subsume these ante-ups: the kids are involved in prostitution? Attempted murder? Sure. This almost seems purposeful, except when things get more visibly hostile later, it oddly carries this same sense of “playfulness”, and it creates what I’d say is an unintended disconnect.

The relative restraint, and good central performance from King, helps keep us in line, though, and things jump to an interesting extreme when a fellow teacher of Norris’, Terry (Roddy McDowall), is actually the first to really crack under the pressure.

But it’s here where the movie’s perhaps loftier intentions can no longer hold its low-budget vibe in sway: while the events that follow, intended to push Norris over the line, are serious, the way the movie cuts through them just doesn’t work. Terry’s actions don’t seem to have any fallout, and a big showdown that centers around a student concert Norris is to conduct barely makes any sense, featuring repetitive footage of running down the same hallway multiple times and its squabbles scripted more to boost the grindhouse vibe than logically.

However, Class of 1984 is never nearly as trashy as one might assume from its visible pedigree, and the pieces it puts in place. By today’s standards, it’s probably visually tame, but if you can set aside its oddly (at times) casual tone, its a pretty engaging kids-gone-bad thriller.