A Look Back: Disturbing Behavior

Many Hollywood high school movies pose questions about peer pressure and conformity, but “Disturbing Behavior,” (1998) starring James Marsden takes the scenario: What if my high school was being taken over by zombies?” literally. Parents and educators have long bemoaned peer pressure for things like drinking, drug use and sexual activity, but the movie asks what would happen if you had the option of turning your child into a person on the fast track to Making Something Major of Their Life? – but who also happens to have a major glitch, but don’t worry, because the doctor in charge (Bruce Greenwood) assures you that it’s being worked on.

At the start of the film, high school senior (James Marsden) moves with his parents and angelic younger sister (Katharine Isabelle) to Cradle Bay, Washington, after his older brother commits suicide. The parents deal with this by not mentioning it, but surprisingly enough, this strategy doesn’t seem to be helping James recover. Cradle Bay seems like an idyllic enough community, but James is befriended by several students on his first day of school who report their suspicions otherwise but being outcasts of a sort, no one takes them seriously. It falls to their leader (Nick Stahl) to give James a rundown on the different cliques, which are pretty much what you’d expect, except there is the Blue Ribbons, a co-ed clique that gets good grades, doesn’t act out, and apparently enjoys hanging at the local yogurt shop. His friends Chad E. Donella and Katie “Pre Tom Cruise” Holmes, the school’s resident bad girl, help explain that 1) these kids appear to have been engineered in a lab somewhere, b) the school officials and even town cops are in on the conspiracy, and c) the experiment has lead to violent behavior that can be linked to the murdered teen at the very start of the movie. Sure enough, the Blue Ribbons seem easily triggered into violence – and it seems to be linked to becoming sexually aroused. But overall, most adults are pleased with the result – including Nick’s, who sign him up for the experiment against his and James’ will.

When Nick apparently returns from his mysterious ordeal a full-fledged “Blue Ribbon,” and James realizes his parents are about to sacrifice him, too, he, Chad and Katie swing into action. James and Katie sneak into the building where the experiments are going on, and of course, it turns out to be a stereotypical movie insane asylum, whose patients’ comings and goings are unregulated by HMOs. It turns out that Bruce is such a bastard that one of his failed experiments is his own daughter, and though James and co. do secure proof that these things are happening, they are forced to eventually come up with an escape plan to get away from Cradle Bay. Aiding them will be the school janitor (William Sadler) who is perpetually disheveled, always muttering about catching rats and believed by the majority to be mentally challenged. The outcome is not completely satisfying (perhaps because they wanted to leave room for a sequel). James, Katie and his sister make it, but one of their crew doesn’t. At the end, you expect to see the words “To be continued” across the screen, as the Flys “Got You (Where I Want You)” blares. The song lyrics are about a guy getting rejected, which has nothing to do with the movie plot, but they are both about believing that they have someone in their influence – when, in fact, there may be room to escape.

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