Youth without youthful pretensions

Cleveland High brings Movies 101 to kids

BECAUSE TEENAGERS wield such disproportionate power over entertainment, it’s easy to resentfully see them as the enemy — maniacal despots with crappy taste and a cell-phone fetish. So for anyone looking to restore their faith in youth (and perhaps do penance for other showbiz sins), try visiting with students enrolled in the media academy at Cleveland High School.

Situated in the hinterlands of Reseda, Calif., Cleveland qualifies as a Title 1 school, catering to economically disadvantaged students at greater risk of failing or dropping out. One of its mentors, veteran distribution exec Norman Horowitz, urged me to check out the work done there under media academy counselor Cathee Cohen, who — because the L.A. Unified School District provides no central coordination among schools with media programs — must spend her spare time seeking “mentors, equipment and cold hard cash” to support its efforts.

After only about an hour with the kids, a few things became clear:

  • These are the kind of teenagers you actually root for to make it. Most don’t have parents running studios or trust funds, just an abiding love of movies. They talk about film school, but that will likely require scholarships. And despite the long odds against realizing those dreams, they sound convinced they will find some way to work in the business.

“This group is here because we want to be here and this is what we want to do,” said student Mae Catt, who added that she’s writing a screenplay about Renfield, inspired by Dwight Frye’s minor if memorable role in the 1931 version of “Dracula” — hardly a theme one might expect from a demographic generally associated with “The Princess Diaries.”

As Cohen described the 10 students who interrupted summer to come talk about school, “They have passion and a desire to express themselves through film.”

Most aspire to become directors, but watch out for Kelsea Espinoza, a Bruckheimer wannabe who yearns to produce “big, giant-budget action films” and speaks of compromising with studios as a practical necessity.

  • Conservative scolds can flail away, but kids will always circumvent attempts to prevent them from seeing explicit material. Aron Geldberg, for example — red-headed and fair-skinned — spoke about having a random Asian guy pretend to be his dad in order to wheedle his way into an R-rated movie.

  • DVDs and the Internet have made it easier for young movie buffs to feed their cinematic heads. One kid cited Kurosawa as a primary influence, and seeing classics now is certainly different from the way it was in the old days, when catching a foreign film often meant trekking to an arthouse 10 or 20 miles away.

  • Technology is allowing teens to enter film schools more prepared and already feeling like filmmakers. It’s not exactly Francis Ford Coppola getting his student thesis “You’re a Big Boy Now” released theatrically, but these kids have shot and edited and even posted material publicly on YouTube.

“I feel like we’re 10 steps ahead because of this program,” said Cleveland student Gina Mandraccia.

SOME OF THE KIDS stumbled into the academy by chance, but those that have been bitten say there’s no turning back. Of course, that will require selling a career path fraught with uncertainty to sometimes-skeptical parents, who have a hard time understanding why their teens are laboring on film projects late at night and over weekends.

“I know it’s completely changed me,” said Sarah Morcos, an 11th-grader whose short “Petals of Hope” won two prizes in a festival that received more than 500 submissions.

Cohen said her involvement grew out of frustration with the high dropout rate; she was seeking ways to engage kids and keep more of them in school. Of Cleveland’s 3,800 students, 600 pass through the media academy, whose activities include the Teen Intl. Media Exchange (or TIME), which has sent small groups to South Korea and Belize and reciprocally hosted youths from those countries.

Knowing the lottery-like odds against “making it,” it’s hard to be quite as bullish as the students are, which doesn’t mean they’re divorced from reality. “It’s all about who you know,” Geldberg said.

Even so, it’s reassuring to see that at Cleveland, anyway, the kids are all right.

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