‘Killer Grades’ gives an insight into the frustrated mind of a student as it is a cautionary tale of the harrowing repercussions that emanate from the unrelenting pressure to achieve academic excellence. Directed by Jose Montesinos, famous for ‘Frenzy’ and ‘Sinister Minister’, this thriller follows Michelle, a seemingly intelligent and hardworking student who manages to score herself a place in the academic decathlon team through unwavering determination. As is usual with any sane mother out there, Michelle’s mom Katherine is thrilled and supportive of her little girl’s achievements.
However, things take a turn for the worst when a student ends up in a hospital bed, and her father turns up dead, killed and stashed in the trunk of a car. This sets Katherine’s alert gears into full motion, and she soon realizes that something is wrong with this seemingly prestigious and harmless team.
The filming of this movie primarily took place in Los Angeles during the coronavirus lockdown under strict health guidelines. The film is entirely fictional and impressively captures the central theme of the obsession with grades over the mental stability and wellbeing of students. Scott Collette and Dave Hickey penned the screenplay.
Megan Ashley Brown leads the talented cast of ‘Killer Grades,’ playing Michelle, the bright young student whose high grades lands her a place in the decathlon team. The Jacksonville-born star is best known for ‘The Conjuring 3: The Devil Made Me Do It’ and ‘Blood Brothers.’ Laurie Fortier, a Lifetime regular from ‘The Walking Dead’ series, ‘Saving My Daughter’ and ‘Recipe for Abduction’ embodies the character of Michelle’s mother, Katherine. Other cast members include Liz Fenning as Wendy Katherine’s colleague, Angelina Folino as Kerrie a grade obsessed student, Zach Gold as Mr. Lou, the film’s antagonist; Isabella Marquez-Johnson as Sarah, who Od-es and her dad gets mysteriously murdered; and Emma Nasfell plays Amy.
The narrative explores the realistic dangers of academic pressure and the mortifying moral corruption to achieve a set goal, whether personal, parental, or societal. The theme highly resonates with modern society as the increase in mental health issues among students due to the constant pressure to compete with others in the academic field for a chunk of a successful change in the future has become a harsh reality is eminent.
Kids from all over the world feel that they need to get good grades as this is what translates to success in the future. Kerri, one of the students, is determined to succeed as she sees the team as her gate pass to one of the most prestigious schools in the world. Michelle’s mom also sees being in the team that participates in competitions to find out which school has the most intelligent kids as an opening to many great things in the future for her daughter.
When one looks at reality, while grades contribute to succeeding in life, they are not solely responsible. For instance, there are tons of successful individuals in Hollywood who dropped out of school, and they are doing immensely well.
What usually aggravates these already volatile situations in schools is the presence of an ill-intended senior student. In this movie, this academic bully comes in the form of the academic decathlon team teacher Mr. Lou played by Zach. The latter pushes the students to perform well in their studies and doesn’t shy away from using any means necessary to ensure the trainees achieve the best regardless of the extremes.
Now interestingly, Mr. Lou isn’t an obvious villain as he is as polite and supportive as can be, he is a great motivational speaker, and his outward looks are as innocent as can get, But deep inside this harmless look lies a damaged young adult who carries resentment from his past as a member of a similar team to the present.
Mr. Lou has one fundamental rule for the team that the overall grade is a uniform one. This means that the lowest grade counts as the overall grade for the entire team regardless of what the students score individually. This can be perceived as unfair; however, it is done to encourage teamwork and make sure the members hold each other’s hands to succeed together as a team.
Being in the team is a lot of pressure, and this takes a toll on the students. Mr. Lou always being there to help the kids as he’s determined to win no matter what, not by giving them extra lessons but by offering them drugs. One pill helps with concentration and the other with anxiety. Now giving drugs to kids is wrong; however, the teacher makes sure that he explains the instructions carefully.
Due to what happened to her friend Sarah, Michelle’s grade starts to dwindle, and as she’s about to quit the team, Lou offers her the shortcut on condition that she doesn’t tell her mom. An awakening forces Michelle to put two and two together, and she realizes all the events and deaths that have been happening are connected, and the villain is closer than she could imagine.
The visuals are okay. The cutaways of the city scattered across the film keep reminding the audience where the events are taking place. The lighting works well, one can easily differentiate between day and night times in the scenes.
The zoom-ins to Michelle’s face, whenever she takes the pills combined with intensified sounds helps the audience to experience what the character is going through at the moment. The score also works perfectly, going high when mysteriously shady events occur and mellowing up when things are at ease. The face of the villain is never shown.
When someone breaks into Michelle’s house, we only see the hands. We never see the person who kills Wendy, the one who smashes Sarah’s Dad’s head or the one who pushed another student in front of an oncoming car in the opening scene and this builds up curiosity among audiences.
The score also keeps the adrenaline pumping when Mr. Lou shows up at Michelle’s house and holds her mom hostage with a knife on her throat. The quick cuts make the scene very high-paced and exciting.
The actors delivered an outstanding performance. Brown was great as the lead providing heartfelt moments. Fortier was fantastic as the loving, concerned mom, Zach Gold was stunning, the innocent-looking concerned teacher with a sinister motive, and Kerrie as the condescending bitch was a point on.
‘Killer Grades’ can be considered one of the most successful films from Jose Montesino’s vault. The screenplay is superbly written, the performance by the stellar cast is masterful, and the theme is as vital to modern-day society as can be. However, one can’t help to frown at Mr. Lou’s obsession with the decathlon thing.
It is definitely worth the time as the suspense, the drama and the mystery will keep you at the edge of your seat. ‘Killer Grades’ hit streaming on September 20.