'We the Party' Offers Up Good Times
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
Directed by Mario Van Peebles, "We the Party" is a curious combination of things not normally seen together -- the hyperactive, hyper-cut high school comedy and the sensitive, socially-aware didactic drama meant to educate as much (and, in many cases more) than it might entertain. Yes, it has a group of five high school teens making a bet about who'll lose their virginity first ... but it also has a love scene where the young lady says "Whatever happens tonight ... I want it to be special and safe." Yes, it has a rap battle ... but it also shows how the young man who wins it is in trouble with the law and raising a son. And when a young lady steps out of a pool in a bikini towards a young man ... she administers a SAT vocabulary quiz. Think of it as "American Pie," but served with plenty of crunchy-earnest granola on the side.
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And considering how few teen movies treat teens with intelligence and respect -- and how many unfold as if getting laid is the toughest moral and emotional challenge a teen can face -- I'll take the overly sincere message of "We the Party" any day over another stale, rancid slice of the "American Pie" series. Hendricks (Mandela Van Peebles) is a junior at a racially-mixed L.A. school, with dreams of owning a car; his dad Mr. Sutton (Mario Van Peebles) is a teacher; his mom (Sali Richardson-Whitfield) is the principal, and since their divorce, he spends time with both of them. Peer-pressured into a bet about who'll gain carnal knowledge before prom among his friends, Hendricks falls for Cheyenne (Simone Battle) while she's tutoring him and he's helping her with a class project about interviewing the homeless.
But "We the Party" isn't as serious-minded as that synopsis sounds, especially not in an early sequence where a young man tapes a iPhone to his shoe to stream upskirt footage back to an iPad. Or when both Snoop Dogg and Tiny Lister show up as the bad role models for a held-back student who raps under the name 'Conscious Criminal' (played by rapper YG) . There is, to be sure, plenty of teen hijinks in the film, but there's also moments where Mr. Sutton explains to his son that "There's a lot of smart, wealthy people out there who are spiritually broke ..." or a young lady offers to a friend that "Pretty is temporary, but dumb is forever."
So there's dancing and romancing and life advice and philosophy, and a zippy pace, shot on digital and "We the Party" is clearly a labor of love (a cursory glance at the cast list reveals many, if not all, of the Van Peebles clan in parts large and small). If it occasionally comes across as more labored than lovable, well, I would prefer to focus on the interesting things that the film gets right than the smaller things the film gets wrong.
When C.C. performs a 'positive' rap song over Pachelbel's "Canon in D," you can imagine eyes rolling, but the fact that, but for one example, Van Peebles turns the kid in the neck brace -- a staple of teen comedy since Joan Cusack in "Sixteen Candles" -- into a real character with a story and desires and dignity managed to warm my heart without turning my stomach. Like "Billy Elliot" or "Bully," "We the Party" is rated "R" -- thereby protecting kids who might most benefit from seeing it from doing so unaccompanied -- but there's a lot here that would be good for kids to see, with more than a spoonful of sugar to help the not-actually-that-bad medicine go down.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, AMCtv.com, IFC.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He was also the on-air film critic for San Francisco's CBS-5 from 2006 to 2008. He now lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.