Is "The Perfect Score" to be enjoyed as teen comedy, as a caper flick brimming with horny youth, or as a mangy cause for alarm? Is it even to be enjoyed? In the thick of the test-taking season, watching six high school seniors break into the offices of the Education Testing Service to steal a copy of the SAT should be thrilling. But the dutiful message-mongers responsible for this movie have nothing to offer but a wrist-slapping public service announcement about the trouble with cheating: Apparently, it's wrong. The test is so stressful and hard to take that everyone from the NBA-bound point guard (real life Portland Trail Blazer Darius Miles) to the class salutatorian (Erika Christensen) is willing to risk their futures to get their hands on an illegal copy. Also on board are the nasty class stoner (Leonardo Nam), the jaded hipster (Scarlett Johansson), and two interchangeably generic white guys named Matty (Bryan Greenberg) and Kyle (Chris Evans).
None of these people are friendly before they embark on this mission, but if you're deducing that they'll be terrific friends by the time this is over, you probably spanked the reading comprehension area of your own SAT.
"The Perfect Score" comes tantalizingly close to being interesting. It seems poised to raise its voice against the headaches of standardized testing and the admissions officers who make them a high priority. But its rebel yell takes a back seat to the inevitabilities of the squeaky plot. The break-in must be one of the most tedious ever shipped to a multiplex: it goes on for what seems like half the movie and produces too much anticlimactic downtime in which characters start falling in love and like.
Mark Schwahn, Marc Hyman, and John Zeck wrote the screenplay, and it contains one amusingly bad paranoid SAT admission. Last time she took the test, Christensen's salutatorian started taking the word problems personally: She wonders if she's the girl who boards the train in one question.
That's as inspired as "The Perfect Score" gets. Director and former "Head of the Class" star Brian Robbins seems hopelessly devoted to school lore, having hacked his way through "Varsity Blues" and "Hardball." What's close to refreshing here is how the movie busts racial stereotypes. The stoner is a motherless Asian who's last in his class. The point guard, Desmond, who's receiving house calls from St. John's University's coach and needs to get a 900 or better, is a math whiz. He's just miserable with the verbal.
Miles often looks and sounds apprehensive in that way athletes get in front of movie cameras. Then again, he often sported the same face for the year and a half he played for the Cleveland Cavaliers. As his hardworking mom, Tyra Ferrell is the picture of tough love. You just wish she were hanging in a better frame.
Johansson, for her part, doesn't seem to mind being in this company. Of course, "The Perfect Score" was shot before "Lost in Translation" and "Girl With a Pearl Earring" made her a star of interest. Here, her low, insinuating manner of speaking has never sounded more youthfully upbeat. At some point she makes an iffy observation about her ragtag crew. "It'll be like that scene in the `Breakfast Club,' " she says, "where they get stoned and make confessions about themselves."
That could be the start of an SAT analogy: This movie is to "Breakfast Club" as Zima is to beer.
("The Perfect Score": *1/2.)
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.