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DVD Review: We the Party

'There is something kind of disarming about its corny earnestness. Mario Van Peebles clearly invested himself in the material…'

 

Early in Mario Van Peebles’ new high school melodrama We the Party, someone makes a reference to the 2009 film Precious. This is appropriate. Precious, as you may recall, was a heartbreaking but hugely over-the-top tragedy that played like eight TV movies rolled into one. The title character was morbidly obese, uneducated, stricken with poverty, a single mom, the mother of a mentally retarded child, the victim of abuse, the victim of rape, the victim of incest, and infected with AIDS. Any one of those things would have made for a fine TV movie, but Precious went for broke and included them all.

We the Party, while not nearly as hard-edged or dramatic, employs a similar tactic. It’s a teen drama that contains within its 104 minutes a five-way bet as to who can lose their virginity the first, a documentary-within-the-film about economic injustice, a sexy house party, a misunderstood romance, an at-risk criminal teen, a rap-off, a theft, divorced parents, conflicts of wealth and class, a sensitive Stand & Deliver-type teacher, a computer hacker, and a story about wanting to buy a car. And while the film can feel at time like an over-stylized Hallmark channel-safe blaxploitation flick, and the multiple stories can feel like a barrage of cheap and familiar soap stores all releasing their fusillades at the same time, I have to admit there is something kind of disarming about its corny earnestness. Van Peebles clearly invested himself in the material, and damn it all if he wasn’t going to wring that screenplay for all it was worth.

So while it does often feel contrived, and the acting isn’t always the best, the film does have a certain charm. The young cast is especially appealing, full of, as it is, a bevy of attractive honeys and charming young high school fellows. The film is crawling with Van Peebleses, including elder statesman Melvin in a bit part. The lead role, Hendrix (Mandela Van Peebels), is the put-upon everyman who dreams of owning a car, throwing the world’s best parties, and catching the eye of his wealthy crush Cheyenne (the lovely and vaguely talented Simone Battle, onetime contestant on The X-Factor). Cheyenne is an overachiever who is assigned to make a documentary film about the locals, asking them about the economy. Cheyenne is best friends with the school prom queen Shauniqua (China Walker) who, rather surprisingly, doesn’t have her own subplot involving bulimia.

Obama (Makaylo Van Peebles) dreams of Michelle (Maya Van Peebles), requiring him to have the hots for his own real-life sister. There’s a token white kid in the form of Que (Ryan Vigil), and there’s a diminutive and tough-talking Italian boy (Moises Arias) in the crew. The goofball of the bunch is Chowder (Patrick Cage II), who is beloved by the class fat girl (B.K. Cannon). Mario Van Peebles plays their teacher, and also Hendrix’s father. Hendrix’s father admits to slapping his son, although it’s never addressed as to whether or not Hendrix is an abused child. Each of these characters, in addition to their romantic plots, are also granted their own subplots.

There’s also a lot involving the broody bad guy CC (YG), 20 years old and still in high school, the best rapper on campus, and secretly a single father. He lives with his criminal dad (Snoop Dogg) and his dad’s tough-talking lieutenant (Tiny Lister). There will be a plot for him involving a theft, and some question as to whether or not he did it.

You saw this film in high school. They showed it to us in class. Messages of what it is to grow up black in America, how the establishment uses money to define urban youth culture, what role rap music plays in this, issues of drugs, homelessness, teen sexuality, and the halcyon institution of prom are all rolled into a film that aspires to be all things to all people. And while it hits all the bases, it ultimately feels like a sappy and sentimental paean to youth, and how bittersweet that last semester was before graduation. You ever hear that totally insufferable pop ballad by Vitamin C called “Graduation (Friends Forever)?” We the Party is much easier to stomach, but is clearly shooting for the same BFF tone.

The film is shot in a frenetic and over-the-top style, a style that we used to call MTV editing, but now is just par for the course. There’s a lot of “slow-fast,” a lot of musical montage, a lot of quick zooms and weird cuts. At times the entire film felt like the bumpers in between scenes of Burn Notice. The commentary from three of the Van Peebles clan reveals their honesty and seriousness when making the film, including how important they felt the music was. Four music videos are also included.

Like I said, a contrived and strangely TV-movie, but frank enough to snag you.