Like North Country, which also opened this week, Kids in America is a fact-“inspired” picture with a message — but of a much more modest scale. Kids is low-budget, low-profile and a bit ragged, and it unfortunately trades on the fortunately very limited presence of Paris Hilton nemesis Nicole Richie in its cast.
But I’d rather sit through it 20 times than slog my way through the heavy-handed profundity of North Country even once more.
No, I’m not claiming that Kids isn’t a bit on the heavy-handed side itself. However, here it’s under the guise of political satire, which cuts the film some slack in the hit-you-with-a-brick and obvious departments. Kids is also by far the more daring of the two films. For sheer nerve, I give it full marks, even if it can’t quite overcome its limitations in other areas.
Kids is nothing if not subversive, which is about the last thing you expect in a film of this sort. It presents a high school as a microcosm of Bush’s America, and doesn’t mince words in the process, meaning it’s going to alienate just about as many people as it will please — and might even anger some parents who think they’ve packed the kids off to a safe teen comedy. (The movie certainly angered someone on one of those Internet Movie Database message boards, where a thread entitled “The Principal Is a Hero” had to be deleted for content.)
Simplistic the film might be. Safe, it ain’t.
The setup for Kids is no great shakes. Ultra-conservative Principal Weller (Julie Bowen, Joe Somebody) rules her high school with a hypocritically moralistic iron hand. She’s determined to get herself elected to state superintendent of schools, so no hint of trouble or controversy is allowed on her watch. Answerable to no one, she wields her authority with all the arrogance of a comic-book villain bent on world domination, suspending or even expelling any student who questions her decisions, speaks his or her mind, or even remotely threatens her image of a Disneyfied school that even Beaver Cleaver would find reactionary.
When the head of the Celibacy Society decides to promote the idea of using condoms if students are going to have sex by festooning herself with packets of them, it’s a one-way ticket out of school for her (though Weller pauses long enough to pocket a condom that’s to her liking). From there the suspensions and expulsions grow, but when Weller pulls this on Holden Donovan (Gregory Smith, TV’s Everwood) for performing a theater piece that questions Weller’s policies, a small revolution starts to foment — not in the least because of the encouragement of one teacher, Will Drucker (Malik Yoba, Oh Happy Day). Drucker, a former documentarian and political activist, gets himself fired for this, and the dissension grows.
While none of this is exactly inspired, the characterizations and some of the acts of civil disobedience are genuinely sharp — and often very funny. The characters are especially clever variations on standard “types,” given some true flashes of personality and originality. Holden, for example, is a wholly believable movie geek, who just happens also to be cool and something of a romantic (he has an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of movie kisses). The central gay kid, Lawrence (newcomer Alex Anfanger), who is described as “so gay that Cher dresses like him,” is given a somewhat peculiar activist fixation on the injustice done to George Michael.
But in this movie, it’s not just the teens who are savvy. So are adults like Drucker and one of the kids’ mothers (Rosanna Arquette). It’s kind of nice to see a movie where politically active young people are allowed not to have “grown out of it,” but become politically active middle-aged people. For that matter, the bad guys are nicely sketched in. Weller’s chief toadie, drama teacher Kip Straiton (played by co-writer-producer Andrew Shaifer) is the quintessential Log Cabin Republican — an obviously gay man (he has Harvey Fierstein’s autograph and wants to turn Drucker’s film class into a course on some of the worst musicals imaginable), he curries favor with Weller for power and job security.
The story line follows a pretty predictable arc, but the actual events don’t. In fact, the response to Weller expelling a same-sex couple for kissing in the hallway is not only funny, but is also one of the boldest sequences I’ve seen in a while. So is this a great movie? No. The acting is a little variable and the production values are never more than adequate. But it’s a brave little film with a heart and a brain that knows how to deliver its message with some originality, wit and a sense of urgency. The makers of North Country could have learned from its example. Rated PG-13 for sexual content, mature thematic elements and language.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke