Chris Colfer is best known as a star of the television series "Glee," but on Saturday night in Lower Manhattan, he could add a new title to his resume: King of the Tribeca Film Festival.
"Struck by Lightning," the black comedy written by and starring Colfer, drew a screaming, squealing, standing ovation when it premiered at the BMCC Tribeca theater on Saturday. Much of the noise came from teen girls who were clearly fans of Colfer from his primetime gig, though some of the enthusiasm came not from Gleeks but from normally more sedate quarters: "Harry Potter" star Emma Watson (below) showed up, asked a question at the post-screening Q&A and added, "I'm a huge fan of your movie!"
And at indieWIRE, Bryce J. Renninger praised the film and then made a prediction: "Just watch: Colfer will be one of the most interesting pop culture voices of this generation."
Directed by Brian Dannelly, "Struck By Lightning" is a comedy set in a small-town high school, where Colfer's character, Carson Phillips, is the overachieving but underappreciated editor of the school newspaper, and an aspiring journalist desperate to get into Northwestern University.
He's also outspoken, acerbic and brutally dismissive of most of those around him, from his classmates to his teachers to his pill-popping mother (Allison Janney, in a delicious scenery-chewing performance) and absent father.
"He's a version of me if I didn't hold back," Colfer told TheWrap in an interview at Tribeca. "Half the things he says are things that I point-blank wanted to say to people in high school, but I bit my fist."
As a gay teen who didn't have a lot of friends but liked to hang out with "the lunch ladies," Colfer said he vented in his script because he wouldn't dare do it in real life.
"I didn't let anyone know what my emotions were," he said. "I'm surprised I didn’t get an ulcer in high school, because I internalized everything."
It does not require a spoiler alert to reveal that Carson doesn't make it to Northwestern: The title of the film comes from what happens in its first minute, when the character is struck by lightning and killed in the school parking lot.
Colfer says that moment was the genesis of his script, which he began writing while he himself was in high school. "I'd just finished editing the literary magazine, and I was the last to leave the school," he said. "I was tired and frustrated and mad that half the literary magazine was stuff that I did. I was walking to my car in the parking lot, my parents were out of town, and it was kinda cloudy. I thought, if I was struck by lightning right now, it'd take a few days to find me.
"And it came to me right then, this story of a kid who was fed up and tired and didn’t take any prisoners."
The film, which is narrated by Carson from the Great Beyond, is a smart and twisted and funny look at high school cliques, popularity, blackmail and the absurd but at-the-time-important rituals that are fodder for many a high school comedy.
Colfer's script is darker than most films of this ilk, amd dismissive of the usual teen-movie tropes. Nothing, after all, deflates the suspense of a "will he get into the college of his dreams?" plotline like the certain knowledge that the character will be dead before graduation.
You could call "Struck by Lightning" a "Heathers" for 2012, though with a significantly lower body count.
It's not a perfect movie by any means, but the film is fresh and energetic – and if Colfer really does have a "Glee" fan base as avid as the ones who showed up at Tribeca, the film has a real shot commercially.
And if it paints Colfer as the typical actor who really wants to branch out and have more control over his roles – "I am the walking cliché with this," he admitted – it also allows him to do something that he said he's wanted to do for as long as he's wanted to act.
"Ever since I knew what it was, I knew I wanted to do it," he said of screenwriting. "I wanted to create the stories that I saw in the movies, where I spent most of my time as a kid. I would come home and play with my action figures, and write cast lists, like, 'Batman as George, Poison Ivy as Priscilla…'"
When the success of "Glee" emboldened him to begin shopping his script around, he said he was understandably met with skepticism, even by those on his own team.
But with his first movie now finished, he's ready to get another underway, why he waits to find out what he'll be doing on next year's "Glee": "I'm graduating this year for sure, but I'm not sure what's going on after that. I wish they'd announce so everyone knows.I'd like to know."
He'd like to shoot his second script this summer, though at the moment he's still looking for a director and trying to set it up as an indie production the same way he did with "Struck by Lightning."
"Now that I have this first one made, it doesn't feel so shady to talk about the next one," he said. "It's a big genre change for me – it takes place in a 1930s asylum, rather than high school."
He stops, grins and shrugs. "They're probably pretty similar, actually."
(Premiere photos by Andy Krupa/Getty Images)