The Chocolate War (1988)

Directed by Keith Gordon

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The Chocolate War has a lot in common with what I must assume is a much more accessible movie, 1989’s Dead Poets Society.  Both films take place at all-male boarding schools in which there is a strong divide between the adolescents and their teachers.  In Dead Poets Society Robin Williams plays the teacher who helps bridge that gap, but in The Chocolate War there is no such hope.

This boarding school is run like a prison.  The adults in charge are mostly offscreen and personified by the creepy, leering Brother Leon (John Glover).  He is a teacher and the leading proponent of a yearly chocolate bar sales contest, though this time he decides the quote is 50 boxes rather than the usual 25.

Brother Leon’s demands wouldn’t be so daunting were he not able to recruit as muscle the off the books student organization called The Vigils.  This secret fraternity doesn’t accept volunteers so much as it demands human tributes, freshmen it can order around and run through the ringer.

One of these boys is Jerry Renault (Ilan Mitchell-Smith), a quiet kid who mostly just keeps his head down and silently grieves the recent passing of his mother.  When the Vigils task him with refusing Brother Leon’s request to participate in the chocolate sales, he obeys but withers under Leon’s confused, frustrated response.  The unpredictable and quite unstable teacher looks like he might snap at the thought that any boy would defy his orders.

Later Leon learns from a student that Renault is merely obeying orders, and the “assignment” was to resist for only ten days.  Leon, who knows all about the Vigils, is at peace with this, at least until day eleven, when Renault again says “no.”

This leads to a kind of Cold War between Renault, Brother Leon and The Vigils.  Archie (Wallace Langham) is the vocal leader of the secret fraternity even if he’s not the group president.  Archie is the one who decides who to recruit, what their assignment will be, and he’s the one who communicates directly with Brother Leon, deeming the teacher’s “official recognition” of the group as a sign that they are gaining real power within the school.

Word quickly gets out that Renault’s refusal to participate in the chocolate sales is the work of the fraternity.  When it continues, students assume the assignment is ongoing, and Leon, knowing the influence Archie has, demands that he force Renault to fall in line.  Archie relents, giving into a higher power on a condition that it offers certain rewards, and he doubles down on efforts to make sure the school body sells enough boxes of chocolates and that Renault is a part of that.

But Renault continues to hold out, and soon it becomes clear that he is in defiance of the fraternity and thus that the fraternity might not be as powerful as other students have believed.

The Vigils’ president, a mostly silent, intimidating looking senior named Carter (Adam Baldwin), becomes furious that the fate of the organization has become tied to a school activity he never wanted to bother with.  All this means is that everyone is now going to take out their frustration on poor young Jerry Renault.

The Chocolate War is a strange movie, and though all that’s really at stake is the school-sanctioned sale of candy, you really feel the weight of it all.  That’s because it doesn’t so much matter what they’re doing, just who’s doing it.

Every single character of significance in this film is subjugated to another form of power.    Brother Leon ramps up the sale quota to impress the powers that be which could put him in charge of the school, at least if he impresses them with the sale.  Archie is under the thumb of Leon and eventually Carter as well.  His character arc, in which he loses hold of his position within the fraternity, is the clearest example of his lack of agency, no matter how active and aggressive he may appear to be.  Other kids will scratch and claw to join The Vigils, but by the end we see how futile this all is.

Renault, through his act of resistance, would seem to stand outside of this, but even by the end he falls victim to the same power dynamics.  The movie’s climax depicts a boxing match between Renault and Archie, but even as Renault extracts his revenge (he beats the sh*t out of smug Archie), we already know that Archie is just a pawn in a greater struggle.  The real antagonist, at least onscreen, is Brother Leon, and yet he and Renault hardly ever share any face to face time.  Even were Renault to confront Leon, however, there is surely another force of antagonism above him, another level to punch through.

Renault will come to this realization by the end of the movie.  The catharsis is not his revenge and Archie’s comeuppance but rather the simple acknowledgement that he has accomplished nothing.  For a moment he celebrates his boxing victory, standing over Archie’s limp body (don’t worry he doesn’t die exactly), but then he sees his mother’s apparition in the stands, sandwiched amongst the rowdy crowd.  Where everyone else cheers him on, she subtly shakes her head side to side.  He understands in that moment that he hasn’t won anything, just played the same game they always wanted him to play.

So The Chocolate War is a strange little movie but in some ways a devastating story about control or lack thereof.  Renault is a passive character for much of the film.  After his decision to not sell the chocolate (for reasons that are never 100% clear, if he even knows them himself), Renault doesn’t do much beyond reacting to what others do to him.  He is intimidated, shunned and even assaulted, and yet Renault doesn’t do a thing about it until The Vigils put him in the ring with Archie.

Having a passive character is typically a recipe for an inert movie, but here it makes thematic sense.  He was always in the palm of someone else’s hand, and by the end he realizes it.

Up Next: The Land of Steady Habits (2018), The Final Girls (2015), 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (1994)

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