(Lisa is currently in the process of cleaning out her DVR! This could take a while. She recorded the 2001 high school film O off of Cinemax on July 6th.)
Tell me if this sounds familiar.
O (Mekhi Phifer) is one of the only black students attending an exclusive high school in South Carolina. Despite a past that involves petty crime and drugs, O appears to have his life on the right track. As the captain of school’s basketball team, O is the most popular student at his school. Everyone looks up to him. Everyone wants to be him. He’s even dating Desi (Julia Stiles), the very white daughter of the school’s very white headmaster (John Heard). At a school assembly, Coach Duke Goulding (Martin Sheen) describes O as being like a son to him. When O is awarded the MVP trophy, he shares it with his teammate, Michael Cassio (Andrew Keegan).
Watching all of this with seething jealousy is Hugo Gaumont (Josh Hartnett). Hugo is a teammate of O’s. In fact, he even thought that he was O’s best friend. That was before O shared his award with Michael. Making Hugo even more jealous is that he happens to be the son of the coach. For every kind word that Duke has for O, he has a hundred petty criticisms for Hugo. Whereas O has overcome drug addiction and is proclaimed as a hero for doing so, Hugo is secretly doing steroids, trying to do anything to improve himself as a player and hopefully win everyone’s love.
So, Hugo decides to get revenge. Working with a nerdy outcast named Roger Calhoun (Elden Hansen), he manipulates O into thinking that Desi is cheating on him with Cassio. He also tricks Cassio into getting into a fight with Roger, leading to Cassio getting suspended from the team. To top it all off, Hugo gets O hooked on drugs, once again. Finding himself consumed by a violent rage that he thought he had under control, O starts to obsess on determining whether or not Desi has been faithful to him…
If that sounds familiar, that’s because O is basically Othello, transported to modern times and involving privileged teenagers. Even though the whole modernized Shakespeare thing has become a bit of a cliché, it actually works pretty well in O. Hugo’s obsessive jealousy of the “cool kids” feels right at home in a high school setting and director Tim Blake Nelson and writer Brad Kaaya do a fairly good job of transporting Shakespeare’s Elizabethan melodrama to the early aughts.
(Actually, O was filmed in 1999 but it sat on the shelf for two years. After a spate of school shootings, distributors were weary about releasing a film about high school students trying to destroy each other.)
Admittedly, O has its share of uneven moments. Martin Sheen, playing the type of role that always seems to bring out his worst instincts as an actor, goes so overboard as the coach that he threatens to sink almost every scene in which he appears and Rain Phoenix is miscast as Hugo’s girlfriend. Even Julia Stiles struggles a bit in the role of Desi. However, both Mekhi Phifer and Josh Hartnett are perfectly cast as O and Hugo. Phifer brings just the right amount of arrogant swagger to the role while Hartnett is a sociopathic marvel as Hugo. Tim Blake Nelson’s direction is occasionally overwrought, relying a bit too heavily on a groan-inducing metaphor about taking flight and claiming the spotlight. However, both Nelson and the film deserve some credit for not shying away from directly confronting and portraying the source material’s cultural and racial subtext.
O is hardly perfect but it is always watchable and, at its best, thought-provoking.