FILM THREAT: Popular Theory
February 5, 2024
Popular Theory, which clearly should have a The in its title but inexplicably doesn’t, is directed by Ali Scher and written by Scher and Joe Swanson. The family-friendly comedy centers on Eriwn (Sophia Reid-Gantzert), whose mother named her after Erwin Schrödinger, of cat infamy. With her mother gone, Erwin, her conflict-avoiding dad, Arthur (Marc Evan Jackson), and her sister Ari (Chloe East) live with Aunt Tammy (Cheryl Hines). Tammy tries to understand the brilliant Erwin but cannot find a real connection.
Erwin’s school life is not much better, as the 12-year-old skipped several grades and is in high school. While her teachers are excited by her intelligence, Erwin’s schoolmates ignore or make fun of her. Enter Winston (Lincoln Lambert), another 12-year-old who’s jumped over a few grades. Erwin and Winston decide to partner up on the upcoming science fair. After some discussion, the “colleagues” formulate a stick of gum that, when chewed, makes that person popular. However, creating it is easier said than done, as Tammy has banned science in a misguided attempt to get Erwin to be more social.
Popular Theory (still needs a The) is broad. Test subject one, Casey (Kat Conner Sterling), feels like a cartoon version of an unpopular girl. She does goofy things such as knit phone cases and laughs with the popular girls, of which Ari is one, despite not being a part of the conversation. The male test subject is ultra-nerdy Alan (Varak Baronian), who is obsessed with Batman’s sidekick, Robin, and nothing else. He feels more like the late 1990s/early 2000s depiction of a nerd than the more realistic versions currently depicted. To be fair to the script, even the other comic book devotees find Alan’s one-track mind off-putting and cape-wearing off-puttingly weird. But by going so hard, Casey and Alan’s rise to the top of the social ladder works better than it would have had the filmmakers gone for realism.
The other story element that works well here is the family dynamic. Aunt Tammy’s irritation at Erwin does not make sense right away, but there is a moment when she’s artfully doing a client’s hair that cements her feelings beautifully. Arthur’s need to keep the peace or lapse into grief is laid out within just a few scenes. Ari and Erwin’s relationship is not as refined as it should be, though a moment near the end still lands.
The reason that scene is emotional is thanks to the cast of Popular Theory. Reid-Gantzert is delightful. The character’s frustrations and loneliness feel authentic, while the actor’s comedic timing is spot on. Lambert is also hilarious, especially when walking “like a duck.” East is both sweet and annoying, and she sells the final confrontation. Jackson’s deadpan and dead-eyed look speaks volumes about the character. Hines shines as the overbearing but loving aunt. Sterling and Baronian have fantastic comedic timing and greatly add to the film’s overall silly tone.
Popular Theory is an amusing film with just enough heart to be more than a one-time watch. Scher’s film feels like one of the better Disney Channel originals in its heyday. The script is goofy but also charming, and the cast is very funny.