Writer-director Rian Johnson's clever and confident feature debut Brick makes a persuasive argument for the similarities between the heightened sinister twists and arcane hard-boiled dialogue of a Dashiell Hammett story and the regular sinister twists and arcane hard-boiled dialogue of Southern California high school life. As Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) follows up on an SOS phone call from an old girlfriend (Lost's Emilie de Ravin), the teenage gumshoe talks the talk of Bogart's Sam Spade. ''Keep your specs peeled,'' he tells his legman, a brainy loner (Matt O'Leary) who hangs out by the school's brick walls, noodling a Rubik's Cube.
But Brendan also walks the walk of one who meets colleagues in the kind of joint where a mom pours orange juice he's a skinny, mop-headed, argot-spouting teen in wire-rimmed glasses who can make the sentence ''She knows where I eat lunch'' sound tough, even though he probably means the school cafeteria. Soon the ex is found dead, and Brendan is punch-in-the-face deep in a mess involving drug dealers, thugs, junior vamps, and a neighborhood crime boss (''he's old like, 26'') called the Pin, played with lustrous, loony pallor by Lukas Haas. (The Pin appears to live in his parents' paneled basement.)
Brick is all about style and sass, sure the photographic beauty with which Steve Yedlin blesses the banal scenery in this low-budget indie outlasts the convolutions of the plot. But Johnson also grabs hold of a fundamental truth and seduces us with it: The schoolyard can be the noirest burg of all.