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The Prank review: Rita Moreno chews the scenery in a clumsy but hilarious propaganda satire [SXSW 2022]

Rita Moreno and Connor Kalopsis in The Prank at SXSW 2022.
Rita Moreno and Connor Kalopsis in The Prank at SXSW 2022. Pic credit: XRM Media/Sneak Preview Entertainment

The Prank feels of a different generation—one where movies like The Faculty and Teaching Mrs. Tingle made the cineplexes in a late 1990s era.

It mirrors old-school high school flicks that made us ask if our teachers were aliens or psychos who ate children when they were off duty.

The Prank takes this concept and applies some modern-day satire involving social media propaganda. Specifically, how easy a rumor can spread if enough people hate someone.

Does the film stick the landing with the social satire? Here is our review of The Prank playing at SXSW 2022.

The Prank review

The story centers on Ben Palmer (Connor Kalopsis), a high school student on the brink of getting into the college of his choosing.

The school is mostly casual except for one teacher who is a nightmare to students and faculty alike. This lady is Mrs. Wheeler (Rita Moreno), a physics teacher that is every student’s worst nightmare.

She is cold to her children, extremely difficult in curriculum, and barbaric on punishments.

She exhibits her extreme punishment in the film by announcing to the class that every one of her students will receive a failing grade. In order to recover a passing grade, a cheater within her classroom has to confess to his wrongdoing. This places Ben in the unfortunate position of being rejected by his college.

His best friend Mei Tanner (Ramona Young) is a coder and internet guru. Once she finds out Ben might have his future sabotaged by Mrs. Wheeler, she takes it upon herself to start a rumor about the wicked teacher online. A high school student went missing, and she begins a social media campaign blaming Mrs. Wheeler for the disappearance.

The Prank is at its best when it dives into the areas of social media propaganda. Mei’s plan works and is extremely successful in turning the world against Mrs. Wheeler. But just like most things with social media, once meme culture clinches on to an idea, that idea is extremely difficult to turn off.

One can find parallels to past elections, such as the 2016 American election– where anything that was said about a certain candidate (rhymes with auxiliary) is embellished and spread like wildfire on the interwebs.

These are the strongest areas of The Prank as they dissect the nature of viral propaganda in the small setting of a high school.

We will not be saying much more about the story mainly because the film has lots of surprises. And honestly, the less audiences know about this movie, the better. It is very similar to Fresh in that regard.

Rita Moreno at the 25th Annual Critics' Choice Awards.
Rita Moreno at the 25th Annual Critics’ Choice Awards. Pic credit: ImagePressAgency

Beyond the scope of satire is one specific performance in The Prank. And that performance is put on by legendary actress Rita Moreno. She already has a legendary career, but this reviewer cannot think of a role she has played like this in recent memory.

Moreno’s role as Mrs. Wheeler is truly a revelation. She is delightfully wicked and chews up every scene she is given. And keep in mind when viewing The Prank, this actress is 90 years old. For someone that age, it is awesome to see she is having a blast with these kinds of roles.

Not to mention, The Prank has Keith David as the principal of the high school. And whoever made that casting choice deserves a promotion. Keith David is one of those actors that just makes any and every movie better.

The two leads are also terrific and have great chemistry in the film. Ramona Young is especially hilarious in the movie as this impulsive tech nerd that can destroy someone’s career just by being too smart for her own good. She was great in both Blockers, and the Netflix series Never Have I Ever, which continues here.

The Prank slips on its messaging towards the end some, but honestly, it’s so energetic and fun, viewers will not care. It has a nostalgic feel and blends satire, thrills, and twists rather well. This is sure to be a breakout film at SXSW this year and one that will have everyone begging for more Rita Moreno.

Should you watch The Prank at SXSW 2022?

The Prank is a throwback comedy thriller in the same vein as The Faculty or Teaching Mrs. Tingle. It might be a tad messy on its satirical elements involving social media propaganda, but honestly, this film could not be made any other way.

To top it off, watching Rita Moreno at age 90 play such an intense character is worth the price of admission. She might have musical roots, but Moreno proves once again her talent is limitless.

This is a must-watch at SXSW 2022.

Readers can also check out our coverage from last year with films such as Here Before and Violet.

The Prank will have two more screenings at SXSW, including an online offering for attendees beginning tomorrow.

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