In Ashby, clichés and tongue-in-cheek quips abound. Set in a high school where students strictly adhere to stereotypes, the jocks and the geeks keep to themselves. But lo, one Very Special Boy (Nat Wolff) has just enrolled. Will he be doomed to geekdom forever or will he man up and ascend the high school social ladder? Man up he does, with a little help from his ex-CIA assassin friend, Ashby (Mickey Rourke).
As a fun, albeit forgettable, indie movie, it succeeds. In a parallel story line, Ashby realizes that one of the men he assassinated might not have been guilty of anything other than pissing off some heads at the CIA. He goes on one last mission to kill the men who set him up to kill an innocent man. Rourke is great as the grizzled but kind Ashby, and there’s enough action in this thread to carry the film. It doesn’t break any new ground, but it is entertaining.
The other main plot, revolving around Ed Wallis (Wolff), the very bright and sometimes grating kid who befriends Ashby, is less interesting. Ed struggles to fit in at his new school and tries out for the football team. He also courts geeky Eloise (Emma Roberts), whose hobby is MRI-ing people’s brains. (Her researcher father has an MRI machine in his basement, and she studies signs of early brain damage in football players.)
With help from Ashby, Ed learns how to be a Man. He protects his mother and stands up for his girl. Unfortunately, the world never expands much beyond Ed’s perspective. The film has no speaking roles for people of color and almost no lines for women. Roberts and Sarah Silverman (Ed’s mother) are wasted in their roles, barely given any screen time.
Ashby is not quite the progressive role-reversing movie it so desperately tries to be. A football star that dates the geeky girl is not really original ground (heck, they did it on Glee). The movie gives lip to being “different”—characters keep calling Ed a “strange kid” (because he likes football even though he’s smart?) —but by not moving beyond the white adolescent male’s view, it ends up being about the same as every other high school movie. Everything is all about Ed, even though he’s easily the least compelling character. What the heck is Eloise up to with her mysterious MRI machine while Ed is off throwing around a ball or whatever?