Keepin' it real
Back in the 1940s, just as the cynical tough guys Cagney and Bogart created were beginning to show signs of iconographic wear and tear, a newer brand of antihero arrived in the form of John Garfield. Better-looking and softer spoken and more articulate than his predecessors, he embodied men every bit as angry about their lot in life. In films as diverse as They Made Me a Criminal, Nobody Lives Forever, and Force of Evil, Garfield struck a different, subtler chord than did those who came before him. Not so much alienated as neglected, he was a walking dashed hope -- still defiant, even in defeat. He was a man who longed to connect with what we now knee-jerkily call the mainstream -- if he was only given half a chance. And the bittersweet poignancy of his films proceeded from the way they showed how little of a chance he had.
Garfield's spirit is evoked to strong effect in Light It Up, a surprisingly intelligent film about a revolt in a mid-city high school. Writer-director Craig Bolotin and an ensemble cast that mixes veteran performers such as Forest Whitaker, Judd Nelson, Vanessa L. Williams, and Sara Gilbert with newcomers Usher Raymond (yes, that Usher), Rosario Dawson, Robert Ri'chard, and Fredro Starr have somehow managed to put on a show that has much of the pungency of an old-fashioned Warner Bros. "socially conscious" melodrama. In an era as reflexively cynical as our own, that's no small accomplishment. Moreover, in light of this past year's spate of high school massacres staged by psychotic narcissists, a film about a group of students doing their best not to lose control is more than a little refreshing.
High school revolt stories are nothing new onscreen, stretching from Zero for Conduct in the '30s to If... in the '60s, and, more recently, a film like Taps. But unlike the heroes of those films, the disgruntled teens of Light It Up aren't out to overthrow the system -- they're just trying to get it to work in the most basic ways: Arguments about school board politics and the proper teaching curriculum take a back seat when the institution in question doesn't have heat, light, or even classrooms for its students.
Like all good ripped-from-today's-headlines melodramas, Light It Up pivots on an incident that finds the school's assigned police officer (Whitaker) wounded by his own gun. When the authorities are called, a hostage situation develops that almost instantly captures the attention of the local news. Working with production designer Lawrence G. Paull (of Blade Runner fame, no less), Bolotin and his crew quickly confect the kind of shadowy, water-soaked atmosphere that's become de rigueur for today's urban thrillers. Surprisingly, though, this look is of secondary importance to the characters and the cast's ability to bring them to life. In that sense, Light It Up is less a thriller than a character study of people in trouble only partly of their own devising.
It's no surprise to see an actor as expert as Forest Whitaker playing a policeman who can be a reckless hothead one moment and sympathetic paterfamilias type the next. But it's quite another thing to witness the same sort of shading coming out of a music-star-turned-actor like Usher Raymond, playing the de facto leader of the students, who goes from confused to worldly-wise in a perfectly believable flash. Sara Gilbert, thanks to all the years she put in as Darlene on Roseanne, has only to show up and hit her key light to be a perfectly believable teen, embittered by discovering not only that she's pregnant, but that the boyfriend responsible doesn't even want to talk to her about it.
The real find, however, is Rosario Dawson, who has appeared to good effect in previous smaller roles (Kids, He Got Game) and just about walks off with the movie. Without doing anything too showy, she conveys a feeling of what it's like for an intelligent young woman to try to make her way through a world that not only places little value on her abilities, but also seems barely even aware that she exists.
In the much fancier role of Ziggy, an abused young artist whose difficulties with communicating spark the incident that sets the plot in motion, Robert Ri'chard has a lot of unwieldy symbolic baggage to work with. Less a character than a poetic conceit mixing bits of Chaplin, Richard Basehart in La Strada, and even William Holden in Sunset Boulevard (a favorite among movie homages this season), he nonetheless manages to "keep it real." And it's this sense of the "real" that not only keeps Light It Up lively but that marks it -- for all its visual flair -- as happily out of step with a zeitgeist enamored of naught but money and notoriety as the wildly overhyped millennium turns.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.