Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Review: Mario Van Peebles's We the Party (2012) compensates for its threadbare production values with a strongly moral viewpoint.

We the Party
104 minutes
rated R

by Scott Mendelson

At its best, Mario Van Peebles's We the Party feels like the director's overt thesis statement on today's youth culture.  The picture is at heart a somewhat generic youthful coming-of-age story that follows several high schoolers as they struggle to determine their place in their portion of the world.  It arguably wants to be a defining portrait of a youth embroiled in the connectivity-era, along with a generally upper-middle class Los Angeles living under the first minority president.  But the film is actually at its best when its all-but explicitly monologuing what is clearly Van Peebles's thoughts about a whole host of social issues.  The film has more educational merit than filmmaking polish.  It is clearly an amateur work, with a respected filmmaker working on a shoe-string budget with largely novice actors.  Because of what it preaches and what it represents, I wish it were a better overall movie.  But for those inclined to sample it, We the Party has enough on its mind to justify its threadbare existence.

Van Peebles stars as a teacher and the father of one of the young leads (played by his own son, Mandela Van Peebles), and the film operates as a rallying cry to a youth who seem certain that they can only achieve 'greatness' through the unlikely means of fame (acting, sports, politics, arbitrary wealth, etc). The platitudes are a bit on-the-nose (Van Peebles opens the film with a thoughtful lecture about how consumerism is fueled by society's dissatisfaction over their lot in life), although their accuracy and wisdom somewhat makes up for their pontificating nature.  The rest of the kids are relative novices, although their acting improves a bit as the film goes on (no, I don't know if the film was shot in chronological order) and the various story threads come into focus.

The film is peppered with well-known adult actors who give the film a certain credibility, including a surprisingly intimidating Snoop Dog as rapper YG, né Kennan Jackson's criminally-inclined older brother.  Also adding support are Michael Jai White and Tommy Lister.  A documentary project by several of the students allows the film to highlight various tales of social woe and/or injustice, which gives the film the majority of its tension and dramatic oomph (along with the second-half conflict that I won't reveal here).  It's clear that Van Peebles's heart lies in its moments of introspection and drama, even as his presentation of the more informal socialization feels unquestionably authentic.  And it's no small thing for a 55-year old filmmaker to so credibly capture today's youth in a fashion that feels authentic and not the least bit patronizing or strainingly 'hip'.

But in the end, We the Party is a small picture but not one without merit, and one that builds and improves as it goes on.  It's not a great film, but it's a good film with worthwhile ideas.  It's certainly the very definition of a noble and moral enterprise, with its somewhat heavy-handed focus on education and selfless accomplishment being noteworthy in a time when both once-bedrock values are under siege.  Frankly, the film is so overtly good-hearted and moral that I wish Van Peebles had found a way to keep the film's content out of the realm of its R-rating, as it would arguably do most good as an entertainment for younger audiences (keeping the film in PG-13 territory would also limit the film's occasional dips into needless vulgarity).  But it's a compelling bit of nourishing entertainment that barely passes muster through its noble intentions and its preaching of a philosophy that I happen to agree with.  I can only hope that this small-scale film with its token release will reach more than just the already converted.

Grade: B          

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