Hippo Manchester
October 27, 2005

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Kids in America (PG-13)
by Amy Diaz   adiaz@hippopress.com

A group of high schoolers fight for their right to party (Democratic party, that is) in Kids in America, a half-assed anti-establishment afterschool special.

Holden (Gregory Smith) is the “dark boy” who slinks around school, half moping, half smirking, getting all the geeky girls to fall in love with him. But beneath the rumors of a belt with many notches beats the heart of a young Thomas Jefferson. Holden is one of many students at his white-bread high school fed up with the rigid rules and exaggerated punishments of Principal Weller (Julie Bowen). She hands out suspensions like candy for inappropriate behavior — a dark story written in a student’s journal or a condom-covered dress worn by the president of the school’s abstinence club for safe sex week. The ethically diverse students of Mr. Drucker’s (Malik Yoba) film class decide enough is enough and decide to keep Weller from continuing her reign of terror and from spreading it to other schools via the state superintendent position she’s campaigning for. Teaming up with feisty, politically savvy Charlotte (Stephanie Sherrin), Holden and the gang begin a pro-free speech campaign of their own.

Something this cute, you don’t know if it’s better to point out its many many flaws or just pinch its chubby cheek and ask who’s mommy’s wittle activist? Kids in America feels like some sort of amateur film-festival project made with a grant from MoveOn.org. Bullhorn-ready speeches about the Bill of Rights and infringement of rights mix with what’s-my-line-here level of novice lameness. We get a collection of aren’t-we-clever character names — Holden, Kelly Stepford — and referential screen shots (Sixteen Candles, Fast Times at Ridgemont High) that seem like the sort of thing you should get out of your system before you start making movies for people other than your immediate family. The camera work and blocking (where the characters stand in a scene) feel like they were done by, perhaps, the children of professional behind-the-scenes movie types as part of Take Your Child to Work Day.

But then there are also a few moments of genuine wit — like when Phantom-of-the-Lunchroom-ish Holden encourages the students to all engage in same sex kisses after a gay student is expelled. The moment is both a sort of smart rebellion and a cute anti-homophobia lesson all in one.

The best part of the movie comes during the credits, when real-life suspended high schoolers talk about their crimes (wearing a “Barbie Is a Lesbian” T-shirt; writing a violent story in a personal journal; the condoms-stuck-to-shirts number, as performed by a safe-sex-conscious girl whose mom actually died of AIDS). These were the strongest, most compelling arguments made in the film and, strung together with more examples, would have made a truly entertaining and thought-provoking documentary.