By Blake French:
"I thought it would be interesting to make a film about inner-city high school students from their point of view," explains "Light It Up" writer-director Craig Bolotin. "In most films set in a high school, the adult is the protagonist a principal or teacher would come into a troubled school and change the students' lives. In Light It Up' the students take responsibility for their actions, and I thought that would make an interesting story."
It is an interesting story, Craig, but unfortunately, it is one riddled with problems and predictable circumstances. "Light It Up" about a group of rebellious teenagers taking charge of their troubled school in New York, shines an intriguing light on the controversy involving poverty-stricken public schools-but the movies style makes for an awkward, disjointed picture that does good things with its material, but could have done so much more.
I hate it when a movie develops its characters through brief voice over narration during the first five minutes, all while their names appear on screen. "Light It Up" portrays its main characters as stereotypical people we feel like we already know. There is an overachiever, a punk-rocker, a hustler, a basketball player, a gang member, and a talented artist. These characters are played convincingly well by some welcome young actors, including pop singer Usher Raymond, Rosario Dawson, Nickelodeon's Robert Ri'chard, the fast-rising Clifton Collins, Jr., Rap musician Fredro Starr, and Sara Gilbert, best known for her role in the TV comedy "Roseanne."
The students barricade themselves in side of their school after a uncommonly unfair day. First, the school's only decent teacher is fired. Second, an accident occurs that leaves a police officer wounded, but not because of the students, because of his own bias judgments. The police officer is played effectively by veteran film actor and director Forest Whitaker, who brings an involving motivation to the story. Of course, the authorities blame the students for the injury, so they take justice into their own hands and hold the officer hostage.
The middle of the movie doesn't really know where to go. The story seems to hit a place where it simply becomes idle. There are interesting relationships that develop, and the more we watch, the more we care about the characters. But every time we start to feel for someone, or when the plot hits an emotional connection with the audience, the film changes its mood so abruptly we couldn't absorb the power it has even if we really wanted to. The film's often overzealous style clearly gets in the way of an otherwise mature script. Rap music plays as highly stylized montage is displayed on screen-"Light It Up" obviously tries way too hard to be hip.
Some of the angles are played on enough, and the story takes several wrong turns. It has a nice setup, respectable issues, and the situation is understood and well developed. There are rational character motives, an intriguing premise, but at the same time the plot often injects necessary informational nuggets when needed. The ending is right on money, but parts are obligatory. The concluding shoot-out and the character's final "promise" speech is involving, but we spot it coming an hour away.
I liked a lot of "Light It Up" including its themes and performances. For producer Tracey E. Edmonds and executive producer Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds, the film's message was a major draw. "It deals with the importance of education, the disparity of the educational system, and says that kids should not have to fight to get a decent education, quotes Tracey. "The script covers a lot of important issues." Unfortunately we have already seen the issues covered in better movies.