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“Noir” is the “deco” of vernacular movie commentary—the platitude people drop, without precision or restraint, for want of something with-it to say. Not that it makes them wrong; America’s mid-century crop of doomy, criminally inclined mystery-thrillers—fusing pre-war procedurals from the likes of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett with expressionist postwar pessimism—had a resounding, no-going-back kind of influence. What movies don’t seem at least a little noir nowadays?

Of course, there’s derivative, and then there’s willfully derivative. If it seems unfairly constricting to slap the noir label on a nervy project like writer-director Rian Johnson’s debut feature, Brick, it’s also important to remember that So-Cal high-school Hammett is precisely what Johnson’s movie tries to do.

Yes, Brick is another wounded sleuth’s grim quest, which happens to be set among the shifty social currents of pimply, hormone- and drug-addled San Clemente teenagers. Johnson has synthesized those milieus brilliantly; the movie’s ambience is unprecedented and invigorating.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Brendan, a sullen loner investigating the disappearance of his ex-girlfriend, Emily (Emilie de Ravin), who left him for “the upper crust” of school society but got badly tangled up with its lower elements. Brendan’s always hunching inward, hands in his faded-jacket pockets, mop of hair hanging over his wiry glasses and a half-earned, half-practiced unwillingness to smile. Emily’s justification for leaving him, that “I couldn’t handle life with you anymore,” doesn’t seem at all unreasonable.

Still, their breakup’s too permanent. The movie opens with Brendan discovering Emily’s body face down in a ditch. It properly begins with the first sign of trouble, as an inter-title tells us, “two days previous.”

The manner of that wording, and of a few precious early shots, betrays Johnson as a bit of a strutter right away, but, to paraphrase Bogart’s Sam Spade, when you’re slapped with a neo-noir stunt, you’ll take it and like it.

Johnson has that kind of confidence. He spent six years raising his movie’s very modest budget from family and friends, shot it in 20 days (though rehearsals involving compulsory group study of Hammett novels were lengthy) and edited it on his Mac. His determination winningly pervades the film, which assimilates femmes fatales, crime bosses, henchmen and thugs and has them all talking in near-deliriously anachronistic hard-boiled banter.

For instance, when Brendan’s inquest requires a wary alliance with the resident meddling, half-competent law man—his vice principal—their exchange goes like this:

“You’ve helped this office out before,” the vice principal says.

“No. I gave you Jerr to see him eaten, not to see you fed.”

“Fine. And well put.”

“Accelerated English. Mrs. Kasprzyk.”

“Tough teacher?”

“Tough but fair.”

Other rallies sling juicier, less recognizable words. Brick has been promoted with a glossary of its own slang, but a crib sheet kills the fun. You’re better off going in unawares and allowing yourself the thrill of puzzling it out. What matters is that the cast, uneven but clearly united for the cause, takes real ownership of the material.

A cleverly cast Lukas Haas plays Brendan’s caped, clubfooted nemesis, the Pin, whose limo is Mom’s minivan and whose office is her wood-paneled basement. The Pin is a nickname for “kingpin” but also an apt descriptor. He’s a conspicuously skinny inverse of Sydney Greenstreet’s bulbous Kasper Gutman in The Maltese Falcon and as delighted by mutual respect with his rival as Gutman was with Sam Spade.

Gordon-Levitt, continuing his emphatic break from the gravity of 3rd Rock from the Sun, almost seems to be punishing himself. The coupling of Brick’s Brendan with his turn as a variously bruised street hustler in last year’s Mysterious Skin suggests an inclination to spend a few movies getting himself roughed up. As the noir antihero rite requires, Brendan descends into a brutalizing underworld (in this case, of barren parking lots and high-school alleyways), but he seems fully ready to go—even if it means spending a lot of screen time coughing up blood.

He spills some, too, throttling a jock or two to get answers and send messages. The image of the broken-down outcast who takes no shit taps into a weird sort of wish fulfillment—mixing self-immolation with self-aggrandizement—that noir and adolescence have always agreed on.

Johnson gets it: When haven’t teenagers invented idioms to define and defend themselves, to wall themselves off from adults (of which only two, both oblivious, appear here) and to negotiate the power grabs and capricious punishments—criminal or otherwise—of high school? When else in life do you come as close to hard-boiling your patter, or at least wanting to? And wasn’t there once a dame you’d have liked to ask, “Still picking your teeth with freshman?”

The real reason Brick’s mannered style will delight more people than it will annoy is that, after all, it’s just so damned noirish.