The smart, the fat, and the alienated

American cinema usually splits the difference when it comes to depicting the high-school experience. In a hormone-driven subculture where democracy exists only as a popularity contest, most filmmakers have been wary of spreading perspective too thin. So we're offered the views of teachers (Up The Down Staircase, Dangerous Minds); the views of cool people (Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Clueless); and the views of outcasts (Carrie, Sixteen Candles), with nary a border crossed in any of these disparate but entertaining films.

There are, of course, plenty of empty spaces to be addressed, as anyone who wasn't a jock or a cheerleader or a brain but still enjoyed high school can tell you. The real obstacle moviemakers must overcome is capturing the sense of exclusive membership, whether it was just you and your best friend or a clique, that adolescence and the ensuing teenage years seem to encourage. Because we're learning for the first time about our bodies, our ambitions, and our sense of place in the larger world, it seems criminal not to share that experience with someone else.

The seven youthful actors who constitute the ensemble cast of Hackers play characters who fancy themselves renegades, revolutionaries, and idealists when they are, in fact, just as homogeneous as the Junior Varsity. What they have on their side is burning curiosity about the worldwide web of computer systems, and the technical know-how to knock down digital walls in their pursuit of the information-age equivalent of forbidden fruit--top-secret government and corporate files.

Director Iain Softley, who steered the story of the Beatles' rise from obscurity in last year's Backbeat with impressive restraint, has let loose in his latest attempt to capture the essence of a generation and subculture. Softley casts his strangely androgynous, racially integrated team of Internet avengers against a universe of graphic effects that resemble the images from last year's gratuitous virtual reality sidetrip in Disclosure. The director concocts elaborate computer-animated scenes in which we're hurled through telecables and onto the Superhighway. On the live-action side, digital numbers and letters are forever flashing across the faces of our heroes, against the walls and ceilings of their bedrooms, and inside the New York corporate offices of a mineral corporation overseen by a crooked technowhiz known as The Plague (Fisher Stevens).

It's important to remember that you won't be provided with names for many of the characters in Hackers, since their online handles are so much cooler--names like Cereal Killer (Matthew Lillard), Phantom Phreak (Renoly Santiago), and Lord Nikon (Laurence Mason). These are the cocky, quirky, cyberspeak-spillin' homies who get framed by The Plague for a terrorist act on a series of oil tankers.

Screenwriter Rafael Moreu does provide us with the Christian names of two of the hackers, former child prodigy Dade (Jonny Lee Miller) and blue-eyed, bubble-lipped tough cookie Kate (Angelina Jolie). Dade is new to the New York City high school Kate and the rest attend, but he carries impressive credentials--an arrest by the FBI at age 11 for tampering with Wall Street computers from his playroom. Dade and Kate spend the movie trading double entendres. When Dade sits in awe at the memory capacity of her bedroom computer, she purrs, "What's the matter...too much machine for you?"

Against this backdrop of international intrigue and a teen romance only slightly less subtle than those recently pulled Calvin Klein ads, Moreu and Softley work overtime, thrusting into our faces one scene after another of kids' vices--industrial music, cigarettes, Jolt cola, video games, corporate raids. They attempt to build a franchisable mythology around the hackers while flirting with profound questions such as "Who owns information?" But in reality, the filmmakers care about none of these issues. They blatantly glamorize the hackers' illegal activities with a bravado that makes Tony Scott's Air Force recruiting film Top Gun look positively complex.

This would be all right, of course, if they could back it up with enough engrossing dilemmas, a few surprises, and some smart dialogue. Unfortunately, after a while, the glossy idiocy of Hackers makes you feel like you've been flipping through one of those teen celebrity mash magazines. Softley and cinematographer Andrzej Sekula (who exercised the camera for Pulp Fiction) force your attention toward Kate's cow-eyed, pouty gaze and Dade's Olivier-esque jawline. Pretty soon, the hard sell starts to wear on you, especially when the posse of supporting actors opts not to work against character limitations but cheerfully, idiotically indulge them (Lillard, an oddball treasure in Mad Love, is especially guilty here--after sampling his brand of surfer-guy comic relief, you want to punch his buck-toothed, Pippi Longstocking-braided, goggle-eyed head.)

In the final analysis, the smug posturing of Hackers reminds you of the vaguely fascist line being sold to grade-school tots through Mighty Morphin Power Rangers--the evil of nonconformity is fought through dressing well, having good bone structure, and hanging out only with people who look like you. The makers of this limp, inane teenage thriller have attempted to create the ultimate anarchists for the age of satellite. Instead, they've just encouraged another snobby clique.

Another high-school snapshot that opens this weekend, Angus, looks positively stripped-down in comparison. Of course, director Patrick Read Johnson had no need to generate a blustery lifestyle myth around his subject. Indeed, the woes of a fat kid have been lamented through small moments in countless TV movies, but rarely has the subject been explored at length (the exception is Anne Bancroft's debut as a filmmaker, 1980's morbid, self-pitying drama Fatso).

Angus is much smarter because it relies on a cast of carefully chosen actors to raise the rather dull script to the level of gentle comedy. Considering how often the filmmakers could have slapped us in the face with a wet-mackerel kind of audience bid, they've created a modest, if overly virtuous, gem.

The title character, a fat, sullen, science-loving adolescent (Charlie Talbert, in a sweetly spontaneous feature film debut), has just entered high school and discovered his love for a junior varsity cheerleader named Rachel.

While Angus has earned modest acclaim as a football tackle and science student, he's mercilessly ribbed by his classmates because of his size. He's forced to languish in the shadows of teen dreamboat Rick (James Van der Beek), the quarterback on his appropriately named football team The Huskies, and boyfriend of Rachel.

All Angus has is a truck-drivin', arm-wrestlin' mom (Kathy Bates), a grandfather (George C. Scott) about to marry a woman 30 years younger than he, and a freckled, rat-faced, cry-baby best friend named Troy (Chris Owen), who turns out not to be such a best friend after he helps engineer the public humiliation of Angus at the Freshman Winter Ball.

Through this spectacle, Angus makes overt references to a teen classic it barely deserves to invoke--Brian DePalma's 1976 Carrie, which made a Gothic stab at precisely the same sore spot. Our protagonist stands against a glittering, velvety curtain in front of his whole class with Rachel. The contest has been rigged to play a practical joke on Angus--the faces of jeering, chortling classmates blur into a peanut gallery of loathing. Just as you expect a bucket of pig blood to drop from the auditorium ceiling, his humiliation turns out to be less theatrical, his revenge far less entertaining.

Angus is particularly timely in an era when obesity has gone from being a health risk to a moral failing. George C. Scott chides the perpetually sweaty Angus to accept that "you came from big people." If others don't like it, "screw 'em." This is, of course, easier said than done for a boy who's trying to find any reason at all to believe in himself.

And even when the film is painfully earnest with its underdog clichs, you're sufficiently enchanted by the actors' light touch to ride it out till the end. Once Angus makes his inevitable, impassioned plea for tolerance at the Freshman Winter Ball, you're a few steps ahead of the boy but happy to wait for him.

Hackers. United Artists. Jonny Lee Miller, Angelina Jolie, Fisher Stevens. Written by Rafael Moreu. Directed by Iain Softley. Opens September 15.

Angus. New Line. Charlie Talbert, Chris Owen, George C. Scott. Written by Jill Gordon, from a short story by Chris Crutcher. Directed by Patrick Read Johnson. Opens September 15.


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