October 1, 2009

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Fame (PG)
The lucky few teenagers who make the cut to attend the New York City High School of Performing Arts attempt to become the superstars they desperately believe they can be in Fame, a fun sing-it-to-the-back-seats remake of the 1980 movie.

Some kids are actors, some are dancers, some are musicians or singers. Some of the kids who try out for a much coveted position at Performing Arts have agents and are a few steps away from stardom. Some have gambled everything — like Kevin (Paul McGill), the kid whose mom put him on a plane from Iowa in hopes that his dancing talent can get him into a professional ballet company. There are the kids like Denise (Naturi Naughton) — whose father pushes her to excel at classical piano (even though she secretly has a killer voice). And then there are the kids like Malik (Collins Pennie), who hasn’t told his mother that he’s at the school because she doesn’t see his acting and rapping as a road to real success.

To some extent, Fame has at its center Jenny (Kay Panabaker), a would-be actress who can’t loosen up, and Marco (Asher Book), a happy-go-lucky singer. This duo is sweet but bland compared to the other characters — the jerk who uses his role on a TV show to get girls, the rich girl who only seems to be happy when she dances, the girl who is torn between a professional role and keeping her grades up at the school.

The movie floats between this winning, unknown ensemble with occasionally “keep your chin up, kid”s from teachers played by Bebe Nuewirth, Charles S. Dutton, Kelsey Grammer, Debbie Allen and Megan Mullally. Fame feels like it’s not so much built for “your Oscar consideration” as it is built to be played over and over by some tween who has graduated from High School Musical movies and has dreams of some kind of stardom. It’s an earnest movie that (with the exception of that sexual situation and a bit of drinking mentioned in the MPAA’s warning) is good for the kids who are old enough to understand the difference between their obligatory after-school dance or music classes and the passion (be it arts, sports or academics) that they’ve decided to really try at. And what is perhaps most impressive about Fame is that its execution and its performances make that earnestness seem genuine and believable.

Standout performances include Naughton, a would-be director played by Paul Iacono, Pennie and the energetic Anna Maria Perez de Tagle. And — can you stand out for standing back? — the adults who seem to know just when to stop.

So, here’s my movie critic confession — I can’t tell you how this movie stands up to the original because I haven’t seen the original. (I know, it’s a weird hole in my dance-movie studies. I think it is no shine of this movie’s star that I am more eager to see the original now that I’ve seen this remake.) But before you throw your popcorn and Junior Mints boxes at me, it’s a good bet that many of the kids in the audience won’t have either (though, like me, now they will be curious). And this movie, with all its cuteness and big dreams, is just right for them. B-

Rated PG for thematic material including teen drinking, a sexual situation and language. Directed by Kevin Tancharoen and written by Allison Burnett (from the 1980 film’s screenplay by Christopher Gore), Fame is an hour and 47 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by MGM.