What really happens in the heartland.

Kids in the Hall 

What really happens in the heartland.

Unless you were raised entirely on Sweetland and The Spitfire Grill, you know damn good and well that any independent film opening with shots of farmland and granaries and one-street downtowns has taken aim for the wormy heart of Heartland, U.S.A., probably going in through the asshole and working its way up.

True to that model, Eric Frodsham's tough-hearted Hall Pass opens with a crisp and evocative montage of farm-town life but within minutes is in colonoscopy mode. Digging deep into the bowels of a rural Iowa high school, Frodsham gives us Friday Baker (Ryan Palmer), a lean, sulphurous teacher spewing philosophical poison at a janitor: "Jesus ain't nothing but a leech-sucking fag nigger whose only desires are to tongue-fuck the weak and feed them lies of salvation and grace."

We surface, soon, thank Jesus, and the movie recovers from this overwritten nadir to become engrossing. In quick, convincing scenes, Frodsham — the Lawrence-based writer, director, producer and editor — introduces us to troubled teen Sara Wheeler (Candice Wuehle). Everyone who helps her seems to have an agenda, including the blasphemous Friday, who takes Sara drinking, as well as another young teacher, the lonely Michelle (April Baker).

As Friday Baker, Palmer is simultaneously tender and menacing. We spend much of the movie convinced that he's a predator, out to bag Sara, but Frodsham's conception is more complex. Skilled performances by Wuehle and Baker help sell this, as does Frodsham's sympathetic direction.

Some of the ensemble work is spotty, and Frodsham indulges in a cliché or two — of course, the most Bible-happy person is bad. Still, he leavens this with truth and insight, particularly when dealing with the miseries of being a foster child. In fact, Hall Pass frequently confounds expectations by daring to invest fully in its characters and their world while asking tough questions about abuse. What kind of movie does that? One that's humane.

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