Gregory Smith as Holden Donovan
Stephanie Sherrin as Charlotte Pratt
Chris Morris as Chuck McGinn
Caitlin Wachs as Katie Carmichael
Emy Coligado as Emily Chua
Crystal Celeste Grant as Walanda Jenkins
Alex Anfanger as Lawrence Reitzer
Julie Bowen as Principal Weller
Malik Yoba as Will Drucker
Andrew Shaifer as Kip Stratton
Nicole Richie as Kelly Stepford
Genevieve Cortese as Ashley Harris
George Wendt as Coach Thompson
Adam Arkin as Ed Mumsford
Jeff Chase as Asst. Coach Fasso
Imagine every high school movie ever made, good and bad, rolled up into one ridiculous attempt to stir teens to activism and you get some idea of what to expect from this hodgepodge of a movie.
A group of high school teens pull together to take on a tyrannical principal (Julie Bowen) who won’t allow them to express themselves for who they are.
Just in case there haven’t been enough high school comedies in the last 20 years, here’s one that’s not so much a comedy as an attempt to educate and stir up teens to stand up for their rights. Like way too many other movies this weekend, it’s inspired by true stories that made the national news of teens who were expelled for their individualism, and it’s the brainchild of Josh Stolberg, who broke into Hollywood thanks to a script that’s now being turned into a sequel to “Bruce Almighty.” In many ways, this is the type of high school comedy/drama that any major studio might make and release, except without having the budget.
The movie starts by introducing the kids who are pretty much the same high school archetypes we’ve seen in every single other movie and television going back to the ’70s: the fat geek, the cheerleaders, the outspoken ethnic types. Leading them to insurrection is Holden Donovan (Gregory Smith), who’s basically a mix of James Van Der Beek from “Dawson’s Creek” and Christian Slater’s character in “Pump Up the Volume” and “Heathers.” Holden is further inspired to speak out and act by the similarly rebellious Charlotte (Stephanie Sterrin) and their liberal A.V. Teacher Mr. D, (Malik “Cool Runnings” Yoba) who gets suspended for his efforts. After a student gets expelled for expressing a “safe sex” message, Holden gives a stirring speech at the school talent show and then mock-slashes his own wrist as a statement to the teachers and principal. Of course, he’s also expelled and he then proceeds to find ways at making the principal’s life miserable, all in the name of freedom of speech. After the principal suspends two male students for kissing in the hall, he rouses the students to stage a same-sex kissathon right off a Tatu video. Of course, the students’ anti-principal activities escalate until things get out of hand.
Apparently, Josh Stolberg thought that he could win over teen moviegoers by teaching them not to let little things like rules and laws stand in the way of you expressing yourself and standing up for your rights. But trying to teach kids something like this is like trying to teach a baby to cry, because teens are naturally going to try to express themselves and be against authority trying to stop them from doing so. The fact is, and I don’t know how to break it to you gently, kids, is that until you turn 18 and can vote, you really don’t have any rights. Because of this, the movie’s mixed message is lost from the get-go.
Now, setting that aside and comparing it to other high school movies, “Kids in America” is all over the place, trying to be “Mean Girls” one second and “Boston Public” the next, but coming across more like a bad episode of “Saved by the Bell: the Next Generation” as filtered through “Free to Be, You and Me”. Most of the stuff that happens isn’t very believable except for the stuff taken directly from the news about principals setting an example by expelling students for expressing themselves. Other than that, the movie jumps around a lot with no real flow or continuity and way too many unnecessary scenes. Like do we really need to spend time at home with the kids and their parents just to bring in the box office draw of Kim Coles? (Yes, that was sarcasm.)
The script is pretty bad, by the books and using every high school movie cliché known to man and most of it’s not very funny, basing most of its biggest laughs on cultural stereotypes that may be deemed offensive to Asians, homosexual and militant African-Americans. Classic lines include things like “You’re so gay that Cher dresses up like you,” which is funny but rather un-PC when compared to the movie’s attempted message.
The acting isn’t much better, as if most of the young cast were taken from a high school drama class. The two young leads are the exception, but Smith is clearly stronger than Stephanie Sterrin, who is your run-of-the mill WB cute teen actress. Though it takes the story further on a tangent, their romance is kind of sweet, and it’s one of the reasons why the movie gets slightly more charming as it goes along. At one point, the two of them try to recreate famous kisses from movies like “Say Anything ” and “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” which makes it more obvious how this movie is such a pale imitation compared to those high school classics. (After the movie ends, the duo try to break the record for longest on-screen kiss, which is pretty remarkable, but not worth sitting through the what must be the world’s longest end credits.)
The funniest thing about the movie is that its biggest selling point is Nicole Richie, who barely appears in the movie except for a few brief sequences as the school’s snarky cheerleader stereotype. The scenes add little to the movie’s plot and are only remotely funny. Julie Bowen isn’t bad as Principal Weller, until you realize that she’s merely channeling Melanie Chartoff’s principal from “Parker Lewis” and George Wendt is just ridiculous in his two or three scenes as the football coach. You probably wouldn’t even know that Rosanna Arquette appears in the movie because her credit is so small, but she plays Charlotte’s activist mother.
Overall, the production values are pretty shabby, although it does get better as the movie goes along, as if they shot the movie chronologically and figured out how to make the movie as they were going along. Throughout the whole thing, we have the typical MTV punk/rock soundtrack, but it makes you wonder how they had the money to license R.E.M. but not enough to make the sets look a bit better.
Just to drive home Stolberg’s point, the end credits includes interviews with the real-life high school students who made the national news by being expelled from school for wearing T-shirts or condoms, and it’s the only part of the movie that seems real.
The Bottom Line:
While in some ways, I can understand the point of this film being made to teach teenagers to be more active and to stand up for your rights, but the movie is so preachy that it’s impossible to enjoy the few moments that are even slightly funny. And no, it’s certainly not worth seeing it for Nicole Richie. Of that I’m sure.