Kids in America (UK - DVD R2)
Scott McKenzie prepares himself for the worst and gets a pleasant surprise...
Becker High School has a problem. It is being ruled with an iron fist by a principal who is running in an election to be state superintendent. Her policies of censorship and intolerance push the students too far when she suspends students for promoting safe sex and writing poetry in a private journal. A small group of teens mount a rebellion to bring down the principal and sabotage her election.
I usually do my best not to pre-judge DVDs before reviewing them but I have to admit I already had Kids in America pegged to show up in the ‘Reviewer Agony’ list. Looking at the cover, I was expecting a shoddy direct-to-DVD high school gross-out movie to cash in on the relative popularity of the recent American Pie releases Band Camp and The Naked Mile. The presence of Nicole Richie front and centre on the cover didn’t fill me with hope either.
However, Kids in America has a low budget charm and a real political point to make that betrays its treatment by the marketing department. The treatment of the students at Becker High School is based on true events, something that gives the movie an air of credibility not afforded to other teen movies. The only problem is that this is not made clear until we meet the real life versions of the characters in the final credits and I’m surprised there isn’t a ‘Based on a True Story’ announcement at the beginning.
The political angle is laid on thicker than I would have expected from this genre. The climate within the school is a mirror of the world outside, with comparisons drawn to the Patriot Act and plenty of references to the US constitution. Other highlights include a touching moment between a father and son early on and an improbable but enjoyable montage of references to high school movies from the 80s.
There is a down side though. As a whole movie, it doesn’t quite gel together. The opening scenes are quite confusing and the tone is uneasy as the main players are introduced. Some characters are relevant to the political focus of the movie but the actions of others would be more at home in American Pie. With the exception of Rosanna Arquette’s cameo as a supportive mother, the performances of the relatively unknown young leads are more convincing than their more famous and no doubt higher-paid counterparts like Adam Arkin and Nicole Richie.
The filmmakers struggle to stretch the content out to a full feature and it ends up feeling like an extended episode of Saved by the Bell rather than a full-blooded movie experience. What you have is a relatively enjoyable high school movie with a message that means you won’t completely forget about it once you’ve pressed the stop button, kind of like an after-school special made by Michael Moore.
Given that Kids in America is writer/director Josh Stolberg’s first live-action feature film, having spent a large part of his early career working on teen-friendly TV shows, you know what to expect in terms of visual presentation. The techniques used are safe and makes it difficult to separate Kids In America from high school-based TV shows.
Kids in America is a very colourful film and the anamorphic picture is clean and the colours are bright. It does appear to be interlaced and the contrast of bright colours sometimes makes this apparent but it’s not too obvious. Edge enhancement is another occasional problem but there is nothing severe enough to ruin the viewing experience.
The inclusion of a 5.1 surround track is a bit of overkill really because there’s no a whole lot going on in the movie that wouldn’t sound the same via a stereo feed. The dialogue is clear and there’s nothing that gets in the way, although the sound mix plays it a little too safe at times. Music plays a big part in the movie but I found the volume level too low during key montage scenes where American rock music is usually given a stronger presence.
As with the movie itself, I wasn’t expecting much from the extras features. The trailer surprisingly avoids the more risqué elements and makes economical use of the more famous actors, instead focusing on what the movie is actually about. The ‘Making of’ featurette is woefully short and the music playing in the background coupled with the quick cuts makes it feel like a trailer for a much longer documentary.
The only extra worthy of your interest is the feature commentary with the director and cast. Unsurprisingly it’s only the lower-paid members of the cast that are along for the ride, but it is clear they all enjoyed working together and there are a lot of interesting facts to pick up along the way. The director talks about the difficulties about getting the MPAA to reduce the rating from R to PG-13 and discusses the Howard Hughes-type methods he used to get the rating he wanted.
‘Pleasant surprise’ is an appropriate term to use to sum up my review of Kids in America. It’s by no means a perfect movie. It’s very average really and I find it difficult to recommend paying full price for it, even if you do fit the target demographic, but because I set my sights so low I ended up enjoying it to a certain degree. If you find yourself faced with nothing else available for rent or you find it while channel-surfing, it might be worth eighty-five minutes of your time.
Review by Scott McKenzie
Suitable only for persons of 15 years and over
Release Date: 26th February 2006
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 English
Extras: Cast & Crew Commentary, Lighting the Flame: The Making of Kids in America, Trailer
Easter Egg: No
Director: Josh Stolberg
Cast: Gregory Smith, Stephanie Sherrin, Chris Morris, Caitlin Wachs, Emy Coligado, Nicole Richie, Adam Arkin, Rosanna Arquette
Genre: Comedy and Drama
Length: 85 minutes
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