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‘Kids in America’ lacks polish, wit, conviction

Nicole Richie doesn’t make much of an impression in her small role. By David Germain
/ Source: The Associated Press

A well-intentioned attempt to make fun of joyless, sanctimonious authority figures that stifle creativity in public schools, “Kids in America” ends up trivializing the subject through cutesiness and villains too farcical to believe in.

This low-budget comedy has the youthful earnestness of a student film, yet its lack of polish and real wit makes it not much more interesting than the sort of teen audiovisual club projects it spoofs.

The presence of Nicole Richie, Paris Hilton’s ex-buddy and co-star on “The Simple Life,” as a cheerleader may attract some fans. But be warned: Her part is small and she doesn’t make much of an impression.

Director Josh Stolberg co-wrote the script with producer Andrew Shaifer, who also co-stars as a toadying, pretentious drama teacher. Stolberg and Shaifer create a parade of teen types and imbue them with energy and irreverence, yet few teens will see themselves reflected in these grinning crusaders whose proactiveness in the name of free expression is far too preachy and stilted.

Leading the cast is young rebel Holden Donovan (Gregory Smith of TV’s “Everwood”), who teams with classmates in his audiovisual club in a student rebellion after school Principal Weller (Julie Bowen of “Boston Legal”) goes on a rampage of suspensions.

An abstinence advocate is kicked out of school for covering her clothes in condoms to promote safe sex. Another teen gets the boot for writing poetry with violent images in her private journal. Holden himself is banished for a performance art piece in which he fakes a suicide attempt.

So war is declared by Holden and his gang, including new girlfriend Charlotte (Stephanie Sherrin), cheerleader Katie (Caitlin Wachs), tough chick Walanda (Crystal Celeste Grant), tech geek Emily (Emy Coligado), rabble-rouser Chuck (Chris McGinn) and flashy gay teen Lawrence (Alex Anfanger).

The filmmakers angle for broad satire, with references to “this current administration” at the school that come off as weak potshots at the Bush White House. Yet the satire collapses into caricature, Bowen’s principal and other adults behaving with such outlandish excess, they’re cartoon characters.

Stolberg and Shaifer assembled an impressive cast of adults, among them Adam Arkin, Elizabeth Perkins and George Wendt, but they are mostly wasted in inconsequential roles.

Rosanna Arquette squeezes out some nice moments as Charlotte’s bold, free-spirited mother, while Malik Yoba is a strong presence of indignation and defiance as the kids’ mentoring film teacher.

Over the closing credits, “Kids in America” features interviews with real teens whose school suspensions inspired the movie. Their stories have such truth, conviction and power, the fictional movie feels trifling and insignificant by comparison.