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Overall Rating

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Pretty Bad52.17%
Total Crap: 39.13%

3 reviews, 5 user ratings

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Kids in America (2005)
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by Peter Sobczynski

"The Kids are Pretty F#^@ing Far From Alright"
1 stars

What would you rather see–a bad movie that shares your exact point-of-view about a particular subject or a good one that offers one completely antithetical to your core beliefs? Personally, I would choose the latter because I would rather see a film that offers a challenge to my core beliefs than something that merely parrots things I already hold to be true. For example–and this is not a very good or exact example, but it will do under the circumstances–take “The Birth of a Nation,” D.W. Griffith’s still-controversial epic that contains some of the most blatantly racist imagery ever seen in an American film. The thoughts behind the film are odious but I would still take it over the likes of Steven Spielberg’s “Amistad” any day of the week because while I do not share the mindset of Griffith’s film in any way, shape or form, I can still recognize the filmmaking skill that went into creating it. With “Amistad,” I share the sentiments behind it but I am unable to overlook the weak storytelling and dreadful casting that are put into the service of those sentiments.

These thoughts came to mind after watching “Kids in America,” a melodramatic teen-angst comedy with its heart in the right place and its brain still on order from the shop. This is a film that rages against the suffocating atmosphere of most contemporary high schools, administrators who prefer totalitarian uniformity to anyone expressing a potentially controversial thought or opinion, educators unwilling to rock the boat for fear of losing their jobs and zombified students who have learned the hard way that if they stay quiet and parrot back what they are told, they will earn the grades that will get them into the college of their choice (where the pattern can start all over again at a more expensive level). These are sentiments that I can heartily endorse but alas, I cannot endorse “Kids in America” because it puts its ideas across in the crudest manner possible–both thematically and aesthetically–and winds up being as rigid, unyielding and appalling as the very people it is protesting. This film wants to be the modern-day “Pump Up the Volume” but it isn’t even good enough to be the modern-day “New Port South”(and if you recognize that title, you have seen enough crappy teen-angst films to earn a pass from this particular example.)

Set within the halls of Booker High School–run by the draconian Principal Weller (Julie Bowen) as a stepping-stone for her candidacy for state school superintendent–the film opens with students learning that two of their classmates have been suspended from school. The first was removed because her private diary was discovered to have contained poems with violent imagery. The other girl, the president of the school’s Chastity Club (in my day, we called it Academic Bowl), is bounced for wearing a dress covered in condoms as a safe-sex reminder. Most likely, if you are reading this, you think that such a punishment for freedom of expression stinks. I think it stinks. If this were the real world, so would every newspaper and television station in the area and the principal would find herself nailed to the wall in an instant. Inexplicably, this doesn’t happen and it is left to cool-and-rebellious student Holden Donovan (Gregory Smith) to publicly protest Principal Weller and her policies. Using an approach almost as subtle as the one chosen by screenwriters Andrew Shaifer & Josh Stolberg (the latter also directed) when they named their anti-authoritarian hero “Holden,” Holden chooses to disrupt the school talent show (the least likely talent show ever produced, mind you) by beginning to deliver Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy, immediately going off-script to rail against Weller and climaxes with a fake suicide attempt. Holden is expelled by Weller, ostensibly for his inappropriate behavior. Personally, I think she kicked him to the curb for his trite sloganeering and his inability to come up with a proper end to his performance piece.

Although most people seem to sensibly ignore Holden’s blathering, he does inspire several of his fellow students to stop acting like sheep and to begin blindly following his every word, act and deed. Even better, each one fits a key generic demographic of teen films. There is Charlotte (Stephanie Sherrin), the hot, red-headed firebrand who is all about protesting the horrors of genital mutilation, yet is still dumb enough to fall for Holden’s greasy charms. There is Katie (Caitlin Wachs),the hot cheerleader who begins to realize that a life in pursuit of nothing but popularity is a road to nowhere (as a look at fellow co-star Nicole Richie, playing another cheerleader, will attest). There is Emily (Emy Chua), the wily Asian braniac. There is Walanda (Crystal Celeste Grant), the brash black girl who is all about keeping it real. There is even a flamboyantly gay theater fanatic (Alex Anfanger) and a goofy metalhead (Chris Morris) on display. Oops, almost forget one last key cliche–the character who serves as the responsible voice of sage black wisdom–instead of “the Baxter,” we can think of this part as “the Lando.” This time, the Lando is a teacher (Malik Yoba) who has been voted Best Teacher by his students five years in a row and it is easy to see why–his class seems to have no structure whatsoever (at various times, he seems to be teaching English, Film Studies and Basic Journalism) and is essentially a place where all the characters can gather to discuss various plot points. Oh, we also learn that before becoming a teacher, the Lando was also an acclaimed documentary filmmaker. This is something that we have to take on faith because the brief sample of his work that we see suggest the kind of film that Frederick Wiseman might have made if Frederick Wiseman had been an idiot.

Anyway, Holden and his band of outsiders start disrupting school and Principal Weller at regular intervals. They paper the halls with signs (no doubt pissing off the members of the recycling club) and organizing walk-outs that are barely noticed by the faculty. (By the way, the faculty seems to consist entirely of four teachers and a gym coach inexplicably played by George Wendt.) Later on, after two male students are suspended for kissing in the hall, Holden takes over an assembly to show a montage of boy-girl couples who kissed on campus without punishment and then exhorts the students to kiss fellow students of the same gender. In an unlikely move in a film chock-full of such things, they immediately take his suggestion and begin smooching away in a scene that I might have taken a little more seriously if Stolberg hadn’t made the male kisses seem jokey and hadn’t lingered on the female ones (though this does mark the one point in the film when Nicole Richie actually seems engaged). Later on, the gang tries to kick things up a notch further and minor tragedy ensues–of course, the film doesn’t bother to linger on this because wouldn’t want to suggest that its heroes might be wrong on something. It all leads to a climax in which all the kids band together to defeat Weller’s election bid. Again, two minor problems. First, we hear how awful she is but we never learn who she is running against or whether that person is truly a better choice or the lesser of two evils. Second, this “climax” comes so abruptly that when the end credits appear out of nowhere, they are a sight as startling as they are welcome.

Again, I agree with all the sentiments espoused by “Kids in America” but the film depicts them in such a bewilderingly inept manner that I began to develop an urge to pull the ACLU card out of my wallet and burn it. The first problem is that Holden is such an obnoxious little twerp from the get-go that you start to think for a while that the film is going to be a satire on the dangers of exchanging one repressive and restricting ideology for another (or as the crowded masses said in “The Life of Brian,” “Yes, we must all think for ourselves!”) That is not the case–we are supposed to admire this punk for his guts and courage, even though he acts like someone who has derived all of his sociopolitical thoughts from a propaganda pamphlet and his actions from a Mentos ad. Even stranger, we are meant to believe that he is somehow catnip to all the ladies–not only does he land the red-headed firebrand (and Sherrin is rather fetching indeed), he also, in a couple of deeply bizarre scenes, seems to be flirting with both the red-head’s mother (though you can hardly blame him since she is played by Rosanna Arquette) and the mother of the Chastity Club president (though you can hardly blame him since she is played, in what I presume is meant to be a cross-reference to the vastly superior “Pump Up the Volume,” by Samantha Mathis). There is even an oddly flirtatious underpinning to his battles with the principal–perhaps she rejected his oily come-ons and all of his rebellion is merely his petty revenge?

A bigger and more fundamental problem is just how sloppily constructed–both narratively and cinematically–the entire film is. Aesthetically, the thing is the pits–imagine a film consisting entirely of the filler scenes leading up to the sex stuff in a typical porno film. The storyline is the standard youth good/adults bad gibberish that has been seen a million times before and for a film that reminds us that we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, it is perfectly willing to do so itself. Nearly all the kids are good and pure and the few that don’t immediately fall under Holden’s power do so in time for the finale. The grown-ups, on the other hand, are almost all portrayed as monsters, drunks and/or buffoons. Even there, the film seems wildly confused–it gives us a theater teacher who is all in favor of broad censorship while supplying a cheerleading coach who is the only non-Lando faculty member to question authority (though it does turn out that she is dating the Lando, which might explain it) and a pair of male gym teachers who seem awfully eager to lock lips during the big kissing scene. As for the story, it drags and meanders endlessly–instead of flowing together, the scenes smash up against each other like contestants in a demolition derby–before arriving at the botched finale–a theoretically sure-fire audience-pleasing moment that blows the task so badly that it serves as an example of how not to do such a scene.

So how could “Kids in America” have been a better movie. Strangely enough, Stolberg actually suggests just such a way in the closing moments. According to the press materials, he and Shaifer were inspired to write the film after hearing news reports of students across the country being punished for speaking their minds and the ending of the film features documentary footage of some of the kids talking about themselves briefly. This only lasts for a minute or two but all of the kids that we see seem far more real, vibrant and interesting than the twerps we have been suffering at the hands of for the previous 90 minutes. Why not simply make a documentary about those kids, their actual struggles and what inspired them to take a stand? Clearly, they decided to fictionalize it because youth-oriented documentaries are box-office poison but there is no way that it could have turned out worse–either artistically or financially–than “Kids in America” and it might have actually demonstrated that some kids really do have interesting, personal and provocative things to say about the world that they live in

Wait, I almost forgot the other really strange and inexplicable element of the film–yes, more strange and inexplicable than the rest. In one long and pointless sequence, Holden and the red-headed firebrand (and I apologize for constantly bringing her up but we never had such creatures in my high-school and I have always felt as if I missed out on something) discuss what they consider to be the most romantic kisses in movie history. This is silly enough on the surface (and while I wouldn’t argue the choice of “Say Anything” as one of them, I don’t know if I would consider the Phoebe Cates poolside masturbatory fantasy from “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” to be “romantic” by any stretch of the imagination) but it becomes even more ridiculous when they proceed to re-enact most of them–including, I fear, the spaghetti scene from “Lady and the Tramp.” At the end, they even decide to break the record for the longest screen kiss–185 seconds, which they attribute to Regis Toomey and Jane Wyman in 1941's “You’re in the Army Now,” even though I believe that record was broken in 1988 by Pee-Wee Herman and Valeria Golino in “Big-Top Pee-Wee.” Whether or not they break that record is something that I will leave for you to discover–ironically, since it occurs over the end credits, this was the one part of the film when I wasn’t looking at my watch.

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originally posted: 10/29/05 03:43:58
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User Comments

3/21/10 Nolan Teenah I loved it, it shows that people who work hard can change the world (or at least help)!!!!! 4 stars
10/27/05 Heinrich Uber Obvious political agenda and downright a terrible film in every aspect! 1 stars
10/24/05 GUSH!! Pretentious pseudo-intellectual crap. Goes down better with Pepsi ;) 1 stars
10/21/05 Jennifer I loved this movie! It's fun but it's also ABOUT something real. 5 stars
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  21-Oct-2005 (PG-13)
  DVD: 07-Mar-2006



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