Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Who would have predicted ahead of 2022’s iteration of the SXSW Film Festival that a film about two kids pulling a “prank” on their hardass teacher (played by West Side Story’s Rita Moreno) would emerge to be one of the fest’s finest offerings? Certainly not this viewer! The Prank, from Golden Arm director Maureen Bharoocha, playfully mixes sharp comedy with horror suspense to masterful effect. The ensemble cast is in on the joke, and they absolutely nail the tone of the satirical edge to the script. Where else can one witness Moreno in full boss bitch mode?

Ben (Connor Kalopsis) is the epitome of an overachiever. He has a case full of school trophies and folders brimming with backup work and class assignments. On the flipside, his best friend Mei Tanner (Ramona Young) is a textbook slacker, complete with a room that looks as if a tornado has run through it. Together, the duo have their own cutesy side project: a two-person group named Frock Swap that mostly just play off one another musically when they’re not performing at the school’s soccer games.

With the pressure of college applications on the horizon, Ben’s hope for the future lies in his midterm grades. Mrs. Wheeler, Ben’s difficult and ruthless physics professor, throws a wrench into his near-perfect GPA. Someone has cheated on the midterm test, and until Wheeler gets to the bottom of it, everyone fails. This isn’t fair whatsoever, especially in Ben’s eyes. Getting into the same school as his recently-deceased father has become Ben’s life goal. Ben spitballs with Tanner—should they shit in her gloves? Get her fired? With Wheeler standing in the way, Tanner concocts a scheme overnight to bright her down.

To Ben’s surprise, Tanner has used her hacking skills to deepfake Wheeler into photographic and video evidence tying her to the disappearance (and potential murder!) of a previous student. At school, all they can do is wait for the gossip mill to pick up the story that has already become a meme. Ben is helpless to do anything to stop it as their prank morphs into a cataclysmic disaster. Once Mrs. Wheeler is discussed on Channel 4 news, they are well past the point of no return. Not even wrangling out more than two chicken tenders during lunch period from Loretta (Kate Flannery) can remedy their own brand of high school hell.

The fun comes in Ben and Tanner trying to deal with the repercussions of their actions. Both Kalopsis and Young convincingly play besties with an effortless connection that thankfully refuses to straddle the line into romance. I loved their friendship and awkward musicality. Rita Moreno has never played a role like this one before, and revels in the complexities of her character. I found echoes of Kevin Williamson’s 90s classic Teaching Mrs. Tingle, also about a teacher who is going to fail students for cheating and needs to be “taught a lesson,” however, The Prank is a decidedly different beast altogether. Mrs. Wheeler is tough, but she never has the cutthroat meanness of Mrs. Tingle. Still, Moreno does her best to keep the character utterly fascinating. She wears thick black gloves, and loves pushing her students to their personal limits and beyond.

My deepest hope is that The Prank gains a theatrical distribution deal, as the audience reactions to its bonkers twists and turns would be a joy to experience in a crowded auditorium. Even for haters of the zippy script, experiencing Moreno doing a late-career swoon-worthy performance is enough to warrant a watch. As The Prank explodes into its climax, the plot threads culminate in a harmonious and shocking fashion. The ending closes out the film with a memorable zinger of horror. Get ready for one wild ride, as The Prank proves itself to be a terrific horror/comedy hybrid for a new generation of moviegoers. Be sure to stick around during the credits for several fun bloopers!

The Prank screened at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival.

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