AWFJ: POPULAR THEORY – Review by Valerie Kalfrin
February 2, 2024
Every popular person seems to have a special alchemy. A secret sauce. The sprightly comedy Popular Theory combines a clever take on this idea with a top-notch cast, creating effervescent results.
At first, twelve-year-old Erwin (Sophia Reid-Gantzert, The Baby-Sitters Club) doesn’t seem to mind being the youngest and smartest person at her high school. A proud science nerd, she notes—usually when talking to a poster of her namesake, physicist Erwin Schrodinger—how survival of the fittest rules the halls and she’s “blissfully alone in a bubble of my own creation.”
Two things shake up Erwin’s formulaic days. A new student arrives, thirteen-year-old chemistry whiz Winston (Lincoln Lambert, Nope), igniting Erwin’s competitive side, and her aunt Tammy (Cheryl Hines, Curb Your Enthusiasm) and widowed father (Marc Evan Jackson, Lessons in Chemistry) decide she’s too young to be antisocial. Aunt Tammy confiscates Erwin’s home science kit just in time for the state science fair, which could win her a summer scholarship to a prestigious technical school.
So Erwin secretly works with Winston on the science fair project. The two are stumped for ideas until Erwin runs across the lonely Casey (Kat Conner Sterling, Five Nights at Freddy’s) crying in the restroom. The popular girls have turned up their noses at her earnest compliments and knitted smartphone cases. “I’d give anything to be popular, even for just a day,” she sniffles.
A light bulb literally turns on over Erwin’s head (one of the film’s charming bits of art direction), and soon, she and Winston tinker with pheromones. They create a gum that emits these for a few hours, rendering the user attractive in a fawning way to anyone within a certain radius. (Erwin and Winston wear plastic nose clips to avoid being affected themselves.)
The young scientists also give the gum to Alan (Varak Baronian, Bang Bang Zoom) to test its effects on the opposite gender. A comics nerd among comics nerds (he thinks Batman’s sidekick Robin tops Thor and the Silver Surfer), Alan wears a cape to school and is glad to help in the grandiose spirit of saving humanity.
The experiment of course goes off the rails, but director Ali Scher (Jessica Darling’s It List) cooks up a lot of fun along the way, as clusters of students gush over Casey’s and Alan’s every move while Erwin and Winston form a genuine bond. The bright hues in the production design and costuming help telegraph the emotions here, with Casey’s and Alan’s followers wearing the same colors they do, showing how their influence grows.
Erwin, who loves blue, and Winston, who loves orange, also overlap the more they get along. Pops of orange bubble up in Erwin’s blue argyle vests while blue stripes pepper Winston’s orange plaids. It’s a visual touch as adorable as the earnest young actors.
The rest of the cast is wonderful, too. Erwin’s older sister, Ari (Chloe East, The Fabelmans), starts as a one-note character obsessed with everyone’s social lives, then reveals unexpected poignancy. Hines and Jackson convey genuine caring beneath their quirks, while Sterling and Baronian show the high that adoration triggers—and how addictive and corrupting that can be. While the script by Scher and Joe Swanson (Sky Raiders) largely stays light, there’s a moment where one of Alan’s demands might shock viewers as much as it shocks Erwin.
But that’s a small blip in this delightful concoction. Showing true friendship as a rare and precious thing, Popular Theory mixes laughter with heart.