“Kids in America” would be easier to root for if it weren’t so very pleased with itself. Taking up the cause of real-life high schoolers punished for going against the grain, writer-director Josh Stolberg launches a scalding attack on the stodgy conservatism of the American public school system, only to end up stacking the deck in egregiously smirky and simple-minded ways. Stateside release in 700 theaters won’t rack up much biz, though pic could make its way into a few classrooms on video.
As may be guessed from its rather obvious title, “Kids in America” aims to inspire teenagers to boldly speak their minds, while giving everyone else an inside look at the repressive tyranny at the heart of the educational establishment. Pic mistakenly assumes, however, that because the contentious issues it raises are drawn from actual situations, dramatic plausibility should automatically follow. Not so.
Shortly after a girl is suspended for taping condoms to her dress to promote safe sex, a rebellious student named Holden (a nod to “The Catcher in the Rye”) uses the school talent show to deliver a withering attack on super-strict principal Donna Weller (Julie Bowen), who cares less about her young charges than her campaign to be elected state superintendent.
The stunt gets Holden (played by “Everwood’s” Gregory Smith) expelled, leaving him free to plot fresh anarchy against Weller and rally the students to take their First Amendment rights seriously. He’s aided by g.f. Charlotte (Stephanie Sherrin) and their other socially conscious pals, all smart teenagers from the fringes of high school society, who are encouraged to “change ‘da world” by their progressive English teacher, Will Drucker (Malik Yoba).
But even Drucker is outraged when Holden’s actions — he starts off by hijacking the school’s PA system and ends up torching a football field — land a student in the hospital. It’s the only time Stolberg acknowledges that even budding activists have a duty to act responsibly.
Pic’s authority figures, however, are punished the most severely, none moreso than the power-mad, virulently homophobic principal. Played by “Boston Legal’s” very attractive Bowen, Weller is a screaming caricature who calls her students retards and says things like, “Bring me his head!” The idea that administrative intolerance might be systemic rather than the work of a Hitler-esque banshee — or that even the most censorious principal might still be a human being — is simply beyond this film’s imagination.
Instead, Weller is pilloried as a not-so-subtle stand-in for the Bush administration — at one point, she actually invokes the Patriot Act — while at the other end of the spectrum, Charlotte’s mother (Rosanna Arquette), a tofu-munching liberal who reminisces happily about her bra-burning days, is idealized as the ultimate in cool parenting.
Younger thesps are competent enough, though the overall group suggests an almost utopian model of peer diversity, with several of the characters — especially an openly gay student (Alex Anfanger) who rattles off references to Wham! and Bob Fosse — feeling more like types than flesh-and-blood adolescents.
Strenuously clever dialogue is very heavy on pop-culture references, and pic as a whole feels saturated with a love of filmmaking and the arts in general. During one earnest romantic interlude, Holden and Charlotte re-enact a series of classic kissing scenes from teen faves including “Say Anything … ” and “Sixteen Candles.”
Cast also boasts several established thesps in small parts, including Adam Arkin, Elizabeth Perkins, Charles Shaughnessy and George Wendt as a very likable gym teacher. Closing rap, performed by thesp Crystal Celeste Grant, suggests that the material would have made a more than adequate musicvideo.