Not Another Teen Movie: ‘O’ Review

Posted in Screening Room by - July 21, 2016

For every good adaption of Shakespeare, there are bound to be a couple, if not a dozen, that obscure the Bard’s vision and pervert a play’s themes entirely. It is an unfortunate burden that comes hand in hand with the fame and ubiquity of any creative work that we must accept the multitude of half-baked and low-effort adaptions of that very work. One particular breeding ground for poorly made Shakespeare adaptions is the teen/coming-of-age genre. Directed at teenagers and created entirely with the audience in mind, these adaptations are generally “based on” the play they represent and don’t follow all the dialogue or plot points to a tee. Though a commendable effort, it is in this pursuit of trying to make the Bard’s work attractive to younger audiences that the entire meaning of the play’s renown and success is lost. Yes, some of Shakespeare’s dialogue is archaic and his plots sometimes rely on the loosest of coincidences but trying to combine a 400-year-old play with Mean Girls doesn’t always create the cult hit the studios intended for. Though his themes and motifs may find common ground with most audiences, putting the Bard in a high school setting is, for the most part, a recipe for disaster.

Sometimes, however, it’s not.

Thus is the case with 2001’s Othello adaption, O. Set in a wealthy, predominately white American prep school, O is the story of star basketball player Odin “O” James (Mekhi Phifer). Leading his team to the state semi-finals, Odin is awarded the MVP trophy but shares it with his close friend and teammate, Michael Casio (Andrew Keegan). Frustrated for being passed over for the award and jealous of Odin’s popularity with his father and team coach (Martin Sheen), Hugo (Josh Hartnett) plots Odin’s downfall by using Michael’s close relationship with Odin’s girlfriend Desi (Julia Stiles) to enkindle jealousy in the young star.

For those unfamiliar with the actual play, Othello is a tragedy with no shortage of jealousy, hate, and violence. Something I thought would be difficult to translate to a high school setting while keeping it relatable to the target audience. But, through a realistic modern day translation and a willingness to delve deep into the crux of the conflicts in the original play, O serves as a wonderfully unapologetic and faithful rendition of one of Shakespeare’s most morally compelling plays.

Instead of avoiding the dark and uncomfortable points of Othello, the film fully embraces the greed and corruption of its central characters by portraying boarding school not as an idyllic playground but as a collection of confused, hormonally charged children who can’t yet see right from wrong. One of the best parts of the film is the way it builds on the motive of Huge (Iago in the original play). While jealous of not being crowned MVP alongside Odin, Hugo’s real hate for him stems from his father’s blind adoration for Odin. As team coach, he is always berating Hugo’s attempts to stand out while praising Odin for his skill. In what is one of the more surprisingly darker parts of the film, Hugo is shown using steroids to increase his physical performance as a player with the long-term goal of playing in the NBA. Though potentially out of place, it is a commendable and illuminating effort that shows the unfortunate state of teenage substance abuse today. Hartnett shines with his mastery of the forgotten son character, always reminding the audience through the subtlest of gestures and inflections that behind all his offensive scheming he’s just another kid vying for daddy’s love.

The inclusion of basketball in the film serves as the movie’s answer to the war and battles featured in the original play. Instead of contriving artificial levity to lighten the grim tone of what is essentially still a movie for teens, the game acts simply as a vehicle to show Odin’s skill as a player and eventually, his all-consuming jealous fever. No out-of-place ball hogging sequences are featuring Hugo throwing away a potential win for some chance at school glory. It seems the writers respected the source material too much to alter the discreet and patient nature of Iago as a planner and schemer.

Though it’s easy to scoff at teenage relationships, the on-screen chemistry between Phifer and Stiles is believably heart-warming and as a result, all the more tragic. Driven by an intense and youthful passion, Odin loves Desi to an immense and perhaps dangerous degree. It seems that Odin and Desi embody “that” couple everyone knew in high school, always within a hair’s distance of each other, regularly (sometimes infuriatingly so) enjoying themselves as two, long-wed partners would. Resultantly so, Odin’s fury at the insinuation by Hugo that Michael and Desi might fornicate, is utterly believable. Due, very much so in fact, to Phifer excellent portrayal of the golden-boy turned villain. As Odin he is likable, charming and infectiously charismatic. It’s how well he can play both the Prom King and the murderer that his character in no way slouches when paired with Hartnett’s Hugo. Stiles’ Desdemona is just as pure and misunderstood as the play’s but also given a healthy dose of sharp teenager wit.

Amongst its other additions, the film also included a small message on discrimination, especially in the leagues of the upper middle class. The only black kid in a rich white prep school, Odin was recruited specifically for his basketball skills and although he parties and drinks, he is no more a hood rat than racially privileged Hugo. As the climax builds, however, this present but not yet fleshed out the point of racism takes center stage. Odin, with a gun towards Hugo, makes sure all the fearful students hiding under tables around him in the dorm patio remember he wasn’t from an “urban background,” that his mother wasn’t a crack whore and that he was a student just like the rest of him. The only reason he was here, at this moment, was because Hugo, the prep school poster child, manipulated him because of his own petty insecurities.

The greatest misfortune ailing this film’s history, not substance, is the poor publicity and release. Scheduled to be released shortly after the Columbine incident, distributing company Miramax delayed the theatrical release of the film. Like most of the Hollywood, they were under pressure from Washington legislators to censor material that included extreme teenage violence, especially anything associated with guns. It’s this blind fear of triggering even the smallest iota of discussion on any potentially volatile topic that plagues rational governmental decision making in the U.S today. And as a result, this film, by all means an excellently told and crafted story, suffered censorship in a land where citizens pride themselves on their right to free speech. Though eventually released, the damage had been done and this movie, like many others, faded into obscurity and bargain bins everywhere.

I for one, abhor the fact that such a powerful and for the most part relatable film had to suffer the draconic wrath of misguided and fearful judgments. Do yourself a favor and a favor to the cast and crew that lovingly created this excellent Shakespeare adaption by watching this film. It’s a story worth experiencing.

Final Say: Watch It

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When not drowning in school work or ignoring social obligations he enjoys watching movies on just about anything. Currently making his way through the cinema classics he hopes to one day write a novel, but he’ll probably end up playing The Witcher 3 instead.
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