** (out of four)
Raise your hand, all current and aspiring filmmakers, and repeat: “I, (your name here), pledge to never include a group of high school guys making a bet about who can lose their virginity first. If I can find a new, fresh way to do this, I still promise not to make a plot point out of the main character’s crush finding out about the bet.”
Great, glad that’s settled. Writer-director Mario Van Peebles’ inclusion of such a hand-me-down teen movie cliche only tells half the story, though, since the filmmaker behind “New Jack City” and the terrific “Baadasssss!” wants “We the Party” to mostly serve as a story about character and social priorities. Sixteen-year-old Hendrix (Mandela Van Peebles, Mario’s son) dreams of buying a car and taking Cheyenne (Simone Battle), the hottest and smartest girl in his L.A.-area high school, to the prom. But Hendrix’s dad/teacher (Mario Van Peebles) cares more about Hendrix boosting his grades and realizing that “Minimum effort now means minimum wage later.”
So the movie bounces back and forth between standard coming-of-age stuff—can you believe Cheyenne falls for Hendrix while tutoring him, and someone takes an escort to the prom?—and higher-brow subject matter, like a scene in which Hendrix and Cheyenne interview homeless people to get a sense of perspective. “Do you feel your life has been a success?” may not be the best opening question.
Van Peebles recognizes kids’ dreams of fame as rappers, singers or otherwise while emphasizing the unlikelihood of fame. At its best, “We the Party” serves as a sobering bridge between the short-sightedness of adolescence and the realities that gradually set in, ideally with parental guidance.
That often comes off as a lecture. Lines like “Smart is the new gangsta” clash with the movie’s reliance on teen movie stereotypes and a prank stolen right out of “Freaks and Geeks.” Plus, closing by joining two overweight characters in a relationship just to make a joke about them enjoying an all-you-can-eat buffet hardly qualifies as the sort of progressive, intellectual comedy Van Peebles has in mind. Well, when he doesn’t show a kid puking in a punch bowl.
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