Deeply personal but not especially affecting, “Walkout” chronicles the little-told story of the Chicano student uprising of 1968, as teens staged a mass you-know-what to protest inferior conditions in East Los Angeles high schools. Earnest pic simply can’t manufacture much dramatic tension, as it enshrines its lead characters (who are interviewed over the closing credits) and suffers from somewhat uneven performances. Credit HBO with illuminating this overlooked historical chapter, but the picture amounts to a series of snapshots, not a fully realized story.
Personal connections abound in terms of the production, beginning with producer Moctesuma Esparza, who, as a UCLA student, participated in orchestrating the walkouts. Director Edward James Olmos is also an East L.A. native, and both his son Bodie (playing Esparza) and Esparza’s daughter Tonantzin have significant roles in the film.
Still, the story that emerges, as filtered through a quartet of contributing writers, wades gingerly through this stormy period, when youth in general, and minorities in particular, were becoming more emboldened about defying the status quo. And while “Walkout” recognizes the awakening of a movement, history doesn’t provide much of a happy ending, given the current sorry state of Los Angeles schools.
Fortunately, the producers have found a very appealing young star in Alexa Vega, who plays Paula Crisostomo, an honor student who led the walkout at Lincoln High with inspiration from a sympathetic young teacher, Sal Castro (Michael Pena).
In short order, the movie enumerates the various indignities Latino students faced, from being paddled for speaking Spanish in class to denial of access to bathrooms at lunch. It’s only after a consciousness-raising retreat, however, where Paula is exposed to Palisades High — witnessing the disparity between wealthy Westside and East L.A. facilities — that the protest plan begins to come into focus.
At that point, “Walkout” becomes a bit like an Andy Hardy movie, as the gang gets together to put on a show — in this case, a demonstration to ensure their demands for equal education are heard by someone other than school board member Julian Nava (Olmos, in a small cameo). “Our schools are the back of the bus,” Paula says, likening the campaign to the civil rights movement.
The walkouts themselves are re-created with meticulous care, down to the baton-wielding Los Angeles cops, who buttressed their reputation for whacking first and asking questions later. The weakest element involves Paula’s relationship with her authoritarian father (Yancey Arias) — who doesn’t want her hanging out with “agitators” — and compassionate mother (Laura Harring). Even in a fact-based story, these scenes are reduced to the oldest of cliches.
In a sense, pic also skirts the question of what was ultimately accomplished. Yes, more Latinos began attending college, and unfair treatment in public schools improved. Yet decades later, L.A.’s education system remains a much-debated mess, and Latino dropout rates are still troublingly high.
As surely as “Walkout” captures a moment, then, it’s one viewed through the narrowest of microscopes and not with the perspective of time.