The New Gangsta, by David Bax
Coincidentally, the same weekend that American Reunion opens, hopefully constituting the last gasp of a relevance-depleted franchise, we also see the bow of a newer, fresher teen sex comedy, Mario Van Peebles’ We the Party. Truthfully, though, the teen sex comparisons are minimal. We the Party does also involve four male friends vowing to lose their virginities before the end of the school year but there’s a lot more going on here, for better or worse. Van Peebles has made a righteous and exuberant morality play that occasionally becomes an all-out polemic. Stodgy as that may sound, those are the aspects that are new and fresh. It’s when it comes to the basic mechanics of storytelling and cinematic flair that the film falls far short of par.
Our hero is Hendrix Sutton (played by the director’s son, Mandela Van Peebles). A smart kid but no great shakes as a student, Hendrix’ chief goal is to save up enough money to buy a car he can be proud of. Over the course of the last few weeks of his junior year, we see him try to achieve that goal and, at the same time, get his grades up, romance a girl from the senior class and confront the issues with which the film and filmmaker would most like us to grapple. Namely, that externalized emphasis on status is ephemeral and has far less currency than the status of education, good social standing and morality.
Van Peebles is far from the most subtle filmmaker working. His most prevalent technique on display here is to cram the frame with as many youthful, beautiful and energetic people as he can and turn the music up while they cavort. It’s not a mannered approach but it works more often than it doesn’t. The film is sadly close to unique for taking place at an almost all-black high school (in Los Angeles’ Baldwin Hills neighborhood) and not having all the main characters on the edge of poverty or a life of crime. That novelty is not the only thing that makes We the Party feel so of-the-moment, though. The cast is mostly playing their actual ages (uncommon for a high school movie) and their real world input would seem to have been welcomed by the director. Even among the many shoddy actors in the company, there is a comfort in the performances. It’s only once Van Peebles has captured the energy with which he wants to paint this time and place that he settles into making his points about it. Those points range from the redefinition of status detailed above to the cool-sounding but hollow line, “Smart is the new gangsta.”
As crisp as Van Peebles’ depiction of youth in 2012 is, his actual plot and its dramatic hinges are just as limp. Hendrix’ voiceover narration; the introduction and then immediate dismissal of the golden child older brother; the boys’ schemes to get a glimpse of, or a date with, girls; the troubled kid with a sympathy-inducing home life and a proximity to crime; the over-protective father of Hendrix’ romantic interest… The list of stock elements that have lost all power to engender emotion goes on.
Of course, those things aren’t the point. The point is the point here. Unfortunately, that becomes problematic too. Even leaving aside Van Peebles’ troubling advocacy for corporal punishment of children, the kids themselves are occasionally difficult to support. The boys’ treatment of the girls is ultimately devaluing, while the girls’ tendency toward jealousy and disinterest is taken as a matter of feminine course. Also, the depiction of a teenager’s throat closing up due to peanut allergy is not cause for high fives, even if the kid’s a bully. It’s potentially a cause for manslaughter charges for the boys who snuck the peanuts into the sandwich in the first place. It’s an astonishingly misguided and unfunny moment.
This is reportedly something of a passion project for Mario Van Peebles. As such, I imagine he’s very proud of it and there’s no real reason he shouldn’t be. It would seem to be exactly the film he set out to make. When the book on the man is written, this film’s chapter will likely be an important one. In that sense, We the Party is worth seeing but don’t allow yourself to get its biographical importance confused with its value as a film.