For as long as high school misfit Tommy Dolan (Kenton Duty) can remember, Matt Prylek (Danny Flaherty) has made his life a living hell. Not only is Matt the most popular kid in school and a star athlete, but his brother's girlfriend Abby (Megan Channell) is the school guidance counsellor. So he has no fear of authority. As if things weren't bad enough for Tommy, crippling shyness hampers his attempts to impress beautiful Sarah (Katherine McNamara) especially after he accidentally dumps a salad on her head. Tommy's only refuge is the restaurant run by his beloved grandmother Angela (Mary Beth Peil) where his culinary talents attract the producers of a televised cooking contest. The prize not only includes a substantial sum of money but the chance to star in his own cooking show. Reluctant at first, on account of his shyness, Tommy changes his mind on learning an unscrupulous landlord aims to sell the lease on the restaurant. Since the contest is a group event Tommy needs to assemble a team. Whereupon Matt suddenly appears at his door, apologizing for years of torment as he volunteers to join Tommy's cooking team as part of the school's anti-bullying program. At first Tommy is suspicious, but Matt proves so contrite, helpful and encouraging a friendship blossoms between the two. Little does Tommy know, Matt is out to sabotage his chances because his brother Kyle (Kyle Dean Massey) is a partner in a property scheme with designs on Angela's restaurant.
Contest premiered on The Cartoon Network as part of the channel's Stop Bullying, Speak Up campaign. Sadly, despite an admirable anti-bullying theme and a handful of affecting scenes, the film is a well-intentioned failure. As indicated by a closing dedication to family this is clearly a heartfelt effort from first-time writer, producer-director Anthony Joseph Giunta. The film has an interesting set-up, undone by sloppy execution and an uncertain tone. Gags straight out of a typical dumb Disney Channel sitcom sit uneasily alongside edgier moments as when an anguished Tommy briefly considers throwing himself from the rafters above the stage. It is not as asinine as a Disney teen romp but isn't Bully (2001) either. Most problematically the film often diverges from both the cooking contest and central relationship into strange, ill-defined sub-plots like the wimpy kid trying to ingratiate himself with a pack of bullies, the teachers coping with Robert Wuhl's twitchy germ-phobic principal, and the boys' semi-romantic rivalry with a trio of Latvian sisters (?) one of whom ends up humiliated by Matt's poorly characterized second brother.
Not helping things are some odd editing choices that render the plot an elliptical mess. As Matt bolsters Tommy's confidence and starts to think of him as more of a brother than the self-serving, manipulative Kyle, the duo assemble their crack culinary team. Which introduces us to two seemingly significant yet, once again, ill-defined supporting characters: bizarrely-accented Aussie weirdo Philip (Jan Uczkowski) – what's with all the foreign exchange students in this cooking contest? - and pint-sized Bobby Butler (Owen Teague) about whom we learn next to nothing. That is until Bobby abruptly quits the team on account of some pictures posted online that are either a mean photo-shop prank or expose his transvestite urges, we never really know. In fact the film reduces several significant plot points to wordless montages that just don't make sense.
Perhaps strangest of all the film pays little attention to the food contest. Anyone expecting Contest to be the teen version of foodie flicks like Big Night (1996) or Babette's Feast (1987) will be surprised the meals Tommy and Matt prepare are no more complex than the most basic pizza or sandwiches. In fact were never really see Tommy cook nor does Matt develop any appreciation of food. We do get to see them open up and talk about their personal problems, which is nice, but then why makes this about a cooking contest at all? The film hits on one solid idea when Matt muses how the need to belong drives people to do bad things which is truthful to a degree though still simplistic and a bleak assessment of human beings as a whole. On the other hand Angela keeps a surprisingly open mind about the boy that beats her grandson senseless every day, stating she likes Matt's sense of humour as a lone explanation. Maybe she secretly can't stand Tommy too. Contest is well shot and the cast inhabit their roles capably, as rising star Katherine McNamara continues to impress. Nevertheless the film is guilty of basic storytelling mistakes which includes reducing the heroes to bystanders while a minor, hitherto barely notable character suddenly foils the villains.