the short

A group of forgotten seniors at a private high school create a mafia-esque scheme of stealing test answers and selling them for money. However, as this operation overtakes the school’s social hierarchy, these once overlooked students get lost in their newfound wealth and power.

Director's statement

             This story is fundamentally my experience as a student of a small, private high school. While it is not completely autobiographical, it represents how I saw the world when I was coming of age. I felt overpowering pressure to do well and be the most well-rounded person in any room so I could walk into any college I wanted. If I got even a C, I felt like I had gone bankrupt. The slightest social dilemma felt like a diplomatic nightmare. 

             I also had a chip on my shoulder. My father owns a plumbing company and his only other employee is his secretary, my mother. I was between two worlds: surrounded by the white-collar wealth of my classmates during the day, just to get lessons from The School of Hard Knocks at night. Both worlds taught me a lot – but I was not sure where I belonged. 

             On top of that, I had spent my childhood hearing about all the crazy stunts my old man pulled in high school. He would, on occasion, recount the late-night drag races with his buddies or their ploys to cut class in the most ridiculous ways possible. Once it was time for me to start my freshman year, I felt like I had a legacy to uphold. I had to do well, yes, but I also had to be the loud-mouth to cut against the grain.

             In reality, I only had to go and give it my best effort. That was it. 

             Once I graduated college and became a full-fledged adult, I came to terms with how silly these thoughts were. I also soon realized, however, that the stakes were different at the time. As I had not fully matured, I was completely unaware of who I was. I had the emotional intelligence of an 18 year-old boy but I thought I had the wisdom (and problems) of a 30-year-old man. Not only did I think I could not make mistakes, I never thought anyone could catch on even if I did. I truly thought I was the most clever kid alive. I just never took it too far.

             So many high school and college students feel the immense social and academic pressure that I did. It was not hard to imagine a world where a bunch of kids with no moral compasses let the ends justify the means. This is a story about the next generation of students made by the next generation of filmmakers.

brian smail iii

Writer/Director

Feature Film

We created the short as a way for audiences to get a glimpse into the world of Checks and Balance - but it was never the final objective. It is merely a small excerpt of the larger feature that follows the entire rise and fall of the high-school-student mob.

             Checks and Balance is a crime drama set in an affluent, New England preparatory high school. The fictitious New England Collegiate School of Higher Learning (NECSOHL) contains classic northeastern characteristics, from wealthy families to historic buildings to rigorous academics. However, where NECSOHL breaks the stereotype is with its division of power. The students run the school; they organize functions, they mentor one another, and they discipline one another. The faculty are only focused on teaching and grading.

             What starts as a simple idea to make some money and gain popularity spirals into a school-wide corruption of the students. As our protagonists stumble through changing power dynamics and sudden wealth, it does not take long for their naivety to be put on full display. The mob, named after and operated by “The Executive Branch”, NECSOHL’s student council, is constantly evading the investigation of “The Honor Council”, a disciplinary group of students dedicated to academic integrity. Simultaneously, The Executive Branch is trying to overtake “The Trust Funders”, NECSOHL’s wealthiest students, at the top of the ladder. It is an unwavering struggle for authority. How does the Executive Branch secure power? How do they keep unruly teenagers under control? Will the Honor Council catch on? Or worse, expel those involved? Most importantly, can the Executive Branch, a tiny unit of insecure high schoolers, stay united under pressure?

             Although predominantly a drama, comedic beats blend the genre and tone. The characters are modern students in a distinctive environment. They each have unique personalities that clash in witty dialogue and the entire situation is compounded by watching high school students attempt to run a “real” crime syndicate. Checks and Balance is a film written to capture the audience with high energy while still delivering subtle and clever storytelling.

ThE SOUNDTRACK

They may teach you to never write music into your script, but I could care less about some old screenwriting rules. Music is extremely vital to both my writing and directing. Music enhances my scenes and propels my stories, innately setting a pace and tone for the audience. As I wrote Checks and Balance, I envisioned the scenes taking place with these specific tracks. Though they may not all be acquired for production of the feature, their tones are the essential characteristics. Below are the stage directions of where to hit play.

OPEN STAGE DIRECTIONS

numbers on the boards

Pusha T

The theme of our protagonist, George.

Page 1:
17-year-old, high school senior GEORGE WOODTICK throws his backpack down, turns on the radio, and climbs into the Nova.

Page 66:
GEORGE places his backpack on the back of a van similar to Woodtick Plumbing’s. He grabs his keys out of the bag and resumes walking.

Broadway Bossa Nova

The Dave Brubeck Quartet

For Trey’s walk down the hall as he takes in NECSOHL for the first time.

Page 12:
GEORGE shuts the door to the lounge.

The Spicy McHaggis Jig

Dropkick Murphys

For our antagonist, Nick, making his first appearance.

Page 13:
TREY waits outside the Honor Council Room (HCR). He’s trying his hardest to stay composed – hopefully it’s just a warning.

Lost Women

The Yardbirds

For when Trey first experiences the student council underworld.

Page 22:
The door flies open, startling TREY.

Eso Se Baila Asi

Willie Colón

For the student council revealing how it has stolen tests.

Page 26:
GEORGE smirks at ELLEN.

Soul Sacrifice

Santana

For the heist.

Page 45:
GEORGE hops into his van. TREY, laying in the passenger seat, snaps his seat forward. He’s wearing a red Woodtick Plumbing coverall. A hat covers his face.

Dark Noon

The Barbara Carroll Trio

For not-your-typical auction.

Page 54:
ALLY’s Tesla pulls up to the front of the Rhodes Building.

Bubblin

Anderson .Paak

For the first day of the mobs test answer distribution. When business is booming.

Page 60:
ELLEN stands above TEST SOLVER #1, timing as she fills out one of the tests.

Jungle

Electric Light Orchestra

For the celebration of acquired power.

Page 67:
Everyone takes a shot. The festivities have commenced.

Little Room

The White Stripes

For a new Executive Branch.

Page 69:
GEORGE watches The Godfather in the back office, taking notes. His clothes are neatly pressed, his hair slicked back.

Johnny Bagga’ Donuts

Palma Violets

For when George enters the main garage we see how the operation has changed.

Page 69:
The shop has practically become a trading floor.

Sunshine Superman

Donovan

For “book donations”.

Page 71:
STICKS, HANK, TREY, and GEORGE arrive.

Getting It Back

Cymande

For baseball practice.

Page 92:
NECSOHL BASEBALL PLAYERS get ready for practice.

That’s How Rumors Start

Joey Pastrana and His Orchestra

For Prom.

Page 95:
GEORGE ties his tie for his tuxedo.

Young Blood

The Districts

For the fall.

Page 95:
NICK exits. GEORGE sighs. It’s all over now.

Hot House of Omagarashid

The Yardbirds

For the plan.

Page 116:
NICK drops his head. He grabs his bag and exits the office.

Love Me Tenderly

The Felice Brothers

For the end.

Page 120:
The boys look at one another and laugh. TREY heads to the van.

Chevrolet Van

The Nude Party

For the credits.

In Conclusion:

The State of Our Students

Students have always and will always go to great lengths to ensure they have the best grades, even if that means putting more effort into cheating than studying. Why is this so? Well, from parents to universities, all facets of American academia seem to be hyper-focused on those little numbers next to your name. Thousands of dollars are being tossed around to make sure kids have access to the best education possible. While we have seen parents as the main culprits of these crimes, who is to say the kids themselves are not capable? After all, with today's technology, anybody with a smartphone and a desire to shift their paradigm can cleverly cheat the system in a million different ways. High school is just a microcosm of that - just as the world’s most powerful people will stop at nothing to ensure their power is uncontested, today’s youth will stop at nothing for that A. They will do anything to fit in. Can you blame them?