Saturday, October 27, 2012

Kids in America (2005)

Ah, high school. It is said by many that high school is the best years of anyone’s life. While I can’t confirm that statement, seeing how I am only 16, I can say that it is an exciting experience. The rigorous schedule, the extracurricular activities, and the camaraderie between classmates can elicit a sense of mirth. It can, also, elicit stress. The amount of homework, particularly as a junior, and lack of time at home can be stressful to someone.

Coincidentally, the most exhausted, trite film genre present…is the romantic comedy. But the high school comedy is the definite silver medallist. Most high school comedies provide shallow representations of teens and wear a blanket of drug references, particularly marijuana, bathroom and sexual humor, and shopworn clichés. PG-rated high school comedies are pretty much the aforementioned description, minus the drug references and sex jokes.

There are usually two subdivisions of PG-rated high school comedies: 1) the geeky, awkward, or unique boy who is, either in love with the hottest girl in the school or is just trying to fit in. Oh, and don’t forget the one-dimensional, cardboard cutout bullies. 2) the new girl meets up with the popular girls, who allegedly run the school, but the new girl ends up being popular herself, or some version of it. Oh, and don’t forget the bland, inane pseudo-snappy repartee and obligatory hair whipping. Oh, and also, don’t forget the bland hunky male lead, who falls for the new girl, and is played by some narcissistic, “good-looking” actor, who will never have a career again.

As you can see, whether a high school comedy is PG-rated or R-rated, it’s a formula. However, occasionally, a movie will break from the chains of the conformist, Conservative standards of high school comedies and do something different. 2004 saw that with Mean Girls and 2005 saw it with an obscure, little-seen film, Kids in America, and, dare I say it, Kids in America is better than Mean Girls. I know that may shock you, but there it is.

This is a modest effort than centers around a high school with a wide variety of kids. I’ll do a role call of the characters and, while I do, I’m gonna create a drinking game. Take a shot every time you hear a character archetype that’s been in other high school comedies. OK, here we go.

You have Holden, who is the rebellious type. You have Charlotte Pratt, the hot love interest, who is strong-minded and wants to take a stand. You have Chuck, who is a fat, awkward teen, who plays video games. You have Katie Carmichael and Kelly Stepford, the cheerleaders. You have Emily Chua, the Asian. You have Lawrence Reitzer, the flamboyantly gay dude. You have Walanda Jenkins, who is the sassy African-American chick. You have Wee-Man, the midget, and the rest are on Gilligan’s Island. (the whole Wee-Man thing is made up).

Anywho, they all have one thing in common: the principal, played by Julie Bowen (I mentioned her name because I feel that someone will eviscerate me if I don’t), who is also running for superintendent, chastises them for freedom of expression. She suspends a girl for promoting safe sex, expells Holden for telling the flaws of the school at a Holiday Hoopla and slashing one of his wrists, and suspends Lawrence for kissing his male partner (he’s the gay dude!). The students are outraged and decided to hold an Animal Farm-esque rebellion, supported by Mr. Drucker, one of their teachers. The rebellion is complete with walking out of classes, holding protests, burning the football field, and dumping the school’s tea into the Boston Harbor. (OK, that last one didn’t happen. God, you guys are so easily duped).

Yes, this story’s been done repeatedly. Even the poster for the film looks like it was a rejected Van Wilder poster. However, what makes this film a standout is Andy Shaifer and director Josh Stolberg’s nimble script. Sure, the characters are clichéd, but they don’t act clichéd. In fact, the film never veers into the most obvious stereotypes for the African-American, Asian, and gay characters. These trope characters are infused with intelligence, humanity, and wit. They are allowed to deliver sassy, acerbic, and authentic dialogue.

Even the adults are humane, which almost never happens in the typical high school comedies, which usually portray them as relentlessly evil or ironically hip, oblivious morons who stray distant from their children. In this film, the parents are echt, quick-witted, and funny. Even the principal is logical and mortal, instead of being a Hitler-esque ringleader. The film portrays the relationships of everyone in that same genuine tone. Plus, finally a high school comedy without a bully in sight. Can someone give this Josh Stolberg dude an award? Please?

For a film with such a modest budget ($700,000) and restrained execution, it still manages to be funny. Really funny, to be exact. Consider a scene where Lawrence got suspended from kissing his male partner. This angers Holden, so he rigs the cafetorium, so it will display a video of him from his camera. Through the video, he tells everyone in the cafetorium to kiss someone of the same sex out of rebellion, to which everyone proceeds to do so. Sure it’s bizarre, but it’s also refreshingly inventive and downright hilarious.

In addition, this is a movie that loves movies. Consider a scene where Chuck comments Holden on his Hoopla performance, going so far as to compare him to various horror film performances. There are various pop cultural references in this film, but there aren’t labored into the screenplay to give the younger generation a cheap laugh. If you do find it forced, at least they aren’t referencing a film just for the sake of referencing it and calling it a joke. I’m looking at you, Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer.

One scene that really touched me is a scene where Holden and Charlotte are talking about movies. It, eventually, leads to a montage of them re-enacting famous movie kisses. Sure, it’s witty, but it’s also sweet, sincere and poignant. That romantic subplot, in addition, doesn’t really play a huge part in the movie. It is downplayed, never losing sight of the main theme. There are, thankfully, no dramatic beats. Also, it is cathartic to see a high school comedy where men view women in the eyes of love, not sex.

The actors don’t particularly look like teenagers, but they display such conviction in their mannerisms that we still buy them as teenagers. The only person we don’t buy as a teenager is Nicole Richie. However, I believe it’s actually funnier that she doesn’t look like a teenager. She plays one of the cheerleaders. We know she was cast as a cheerleader because cheerleaders are thought to be bubble-brained and shallow, and no one’s more bubble-brained and shallow than Nicole Richie (no offense). However, she manages to be funny and sharp. It’s the perfect juxtaposition of her character with her actual self.

Nicole Richie, dare I say it, actually gives a good performance. How is it that Nicole Richie only starred in one film and is useful and yet her female counterpart and best friend, Paris Hilton, has been in several films and yet can’t act worth crap? Take that, Mrs. Hilton, even I do want to spend One Night in Paris. Funny, no? To be fair, all of the performances in this film are uniformly natural and good. Furthermore, earnest cinematography and a great soundtrack deeply augments the film.

It’s not a great film and, at times, the acting is a little lackluster. The only other flaw I have with the film doesn’t come from the film. It comes from the audience. This movie underwhelmed at the box office, grossing only $537, 667. To be fair, this could stem from poor marketing, but people don’t really even acknowledge that this film exists. Maybe it’s because people are apprehensive of it. Maybe they’ve been brainwashed to buy into formulaic, by the numbers, high school comedy fare that anything that thinks outside the box of Hollywood and doesn’t have an all-star cast will be pushed to the side. That would be a mistake. This is a refreshing, enterprising film that I urge you to see, no matter how much homework you have.

RATING: Three-and-a-half stars out of four

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