Monday, April 03, 2006

Kids in America

"Kids in America", dir. Josh Stolberg, Launchpad Releasing, 2005 (also now, Screen Media Pictures)
Seen at AMC Courthouse Plaza, Arlington VA, Oct. 2005

When I designed the backcover of my first “Do Ask Do Tell” book I somehow miscalibrated the age of the Bill of Rights, saying it was 160 years; and many copies I hand-applied a sticker to change the number to 210. I did correct this for the second printing, of course. I don’t know how that happened; many eyes missed it. Actually, the date of the Bill of Rights (12/15/1791) is the accepted date in history books – (here is a good web reference: http://www.magnet1.com/constitution.htm ) - figures in to the story, as “The Kids” plaster their high school lockers and walls with “12/15” as one of their peaceful protest tactics against Principal Weller (Julie Bowen) in this drama-comedy of constructive student rebellion.

The story features several incidents early on, as Weller suspends a girl for wearing condoms on her dress (when the girl claims to be promoting abstinence), suspends another for an overly graphic paragraph written in a free journal period in English class (a short journal period in a notebook is a common practice in high school English), and then suspends and then expels Holden Donovan (Gregory Smith) for a stunt in a school acting performance.

Now here we have to get into more of the setup. Most of the action centers around film, drama, and English classes where the kids are making videos and setting up short drama skits. (On a substitute teaching assignment last year I actually supervised a class where “kids” edited an entertaining instructional film on chemistry, using Premiere and other editing tools.) One girl has made a video “manifesto” appeal to protest the brutal practice of female clitoral mutilation in some African societies, and her teacher asks (“ask why!”) if it would not have been more appropriate to pick a cause that affected her own family or environment more directly. (This is a good question that probes into the moral underpinnings of one’s own speech.) The tension has been building when Holden pulls off his stunt.

He starts with the famous Hamlet (“play within a play”) “To be or not to be,” and hesitates. Then he goes on an effective monologue to protest the administrations treatment of several specific student efforts and then says that he is “not to be.” He then fakes suicide and slitting his wrists, then of course gets up and demos the prop underneath his long sleeve hiding the fake blood. (I’ve known of HIV patients who hide iv’s at work this way, even when working as flight attendants.) Of course, the administration is “very offended.”

Expelled, Holden rather takes over the movie, leading more protests and arranging to rig the microphone systems at school. There is another rather charismatic out gay student Lawrence Reitzer (newcomer Alex Anfanger) who has made a strategic opening appearance in the film nude except for boxer shorts, revealing what is essentially a perfect teenage male body (at least according to many tastes). Alex has sung and participate in a pivotal manner in various classes. Then he suddenly falls into the (false) gay stereotype when he can’t climb rope in gym class (it would appear that the real life actor would have no problem doing so). During all the protests, Alex kisses his boyfriend in the school hall within sight of The Principal, and is of course suspended, too. (Who is going to be left behind?) So Holden engineers all the students to engage in a same-sex kiss-out in front of The Principal. All of this from a character who is cast as energetically heterosexual in his own life as possible, with various making out scenes.

Holden will then get himself and several other kids thrown in jail when they try to burn a sign (even using laser alignment pointers) onto the football field to defeat Weller’s bid for election to the School Board. Lawrence catches on fire in a terrifying moment and is hospitalized, although fortunately his (second degree) burns are not that serious. It’s not clear that this was necessary for the story.

Is Holden named after the J. D. Salinger character from "The Catcher in the Rye"? It seems that his is much more forceful. (Remember what Salinger writes about "old guys' legs"?)

Apart from Alex Anfanger, in fact, Gregory Smith dominates this movie so thoroughly as the puppetmeister that it seems to me the movie must have been partly his idea. He does play the part as “Ephram plus” (for those viewers familiar with his work as the teenage piano prodigy Ephram in Everwood). He talks with the same colorful metaphors that seem to be Smith’s own personality. A the end, during the closing credits, he has a six minute “disco break dancing” kiss-out (part of it on the hood of a car), his shirt very loose and half-open as he tries to set a time record. The viewer can look for a couple of minor technical directorial errors here (or maybe there is double entendre).

This film is coming out as a platform release, and when I saw it in Arlington VA and an AMC theater on a Sunday afternoon I was the only one in the auditorium. Obviously the film is intended primarily for Cable and DVD. Since TheWB has advertised it on its own network, I would think WB could promote it more successfully if it took over formal distribution (as WIP). It is interesting that this political comedy was released at the same time as Warner Independent Pictures’s hit about McCarthyism, “Good Night, and Good Luck.” And this comedy is one of the most important films of the year, even given the likelihood of a budget under, say, $1 million.

I want to make a note here, to, about the legal issues regarding free speech in schools. There have been many cases over the years. Generally, school administrations can control student speech and teacher on-premises (particularly classroom) speech that would disrupt the school environment or undermine the credibility of accepted curricula. (With gay and lesbian issues in many areas of the country, this can be a problem, as it may also be with some parents.) At one point in the film, principal Weller draws an analogy between her control of students and the Patriot Act after 9/11, a comparison that is obviously inappropriate. There is a paradox here: the school wants to develop critical thinking skills in its students, so it would seem to need freedom of expression. But in public schools, even high schools, students vary so much in cognitive skills with abstract thought that many students need a carefully nurtured environment.

Off-campus speech is more edgy, and the legal barrier that a school system would face in proving a student’s or a teacher’s speech to be disruptive would probably he higher. Even so, the presence of the Internet and World Wide Web raises unprecedented issues because of the Web’s global pervasiveness. There have been issues with regard to student web sites that grade or criticize teachers, as well as those that promote certain cultures perceived as anti-social (Gothic, or even gangs). Students have sometimes made statements from home computers that were perceived as threats and have been disciplined as a result. Teacher speech on the Web could become an issue if students found it through search engines and if the speech was somehow perceived as offensive or disruptive. Yet, one would not want schools to be able to censor the content of teacher off-duty speech. Therefore, the responsibilities of the teacher (at least if he or she is responsible for grading students) to mediate his own speech on the Web sounds like a potentially serious subject, maybe for another movie (maybe even mine).

Here are some legal references on free speech in public schools:

http://www.electronic-school.com/199903/0399ewire.html

http://www.cla-net.org/resources/articles/minow_libraryspeech.php

http://www.prospect.org/web/page.ww?section=root&name=ViewPrint&articleId=4373

http://www.lambdalegal.org/cgi-bin/iowa/cases/documents.html?record=382

Gregory Smith and Lee Norris (One Tree Hill) sponsor “The U” on TheWB:

http://thewb.warnerbros.com/web/o_generic_blank.jsp?id=WB-The+U

I would recommend showing this film along with John Stossel’s ABC 20/20 documentary “Stupid in America: How We Cheat Our Kids”.

This film appeared at a time when I was involved in my own controversy regarding school "free speech" ("BillBoushka blog, July 27, 2007).

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