By Holly Budd
If only good intentions were enough to make a good movie.
Light It Up wants to be important. It wants to inspire you with its tale of a mismatched group of teenagers who overcome differences and the injustice which plagues their lives to stand up for something important. This is not to be however, as the movie is hampered by its simplistic and stereotypical script, overeager cast and heavy-handed directing.
In a neglected New York high school, everyone’s favourite teacher, Mr. Knowles (Judd Nelson), is suspended. You’ve seen this stock character before: he’s the only teacher who cares. No matter the problem–failing grades, rough home life, financial difficulties–talk to Knowles. He listens. He understands.
His unjust suspension, predictably, outrages a group of students. A scuffle ensues with the school’s police officer. In the pandemonium, the officer. is shot and the gun ends up in the hands of Lester, the star basketball player. Suddenly, a simple protest turns into a hostage situation. Lester (Usher Raymond) and five other classmates hole up in the school, holding the wounded officer. (Forest Whitaker) captive.
In typical celluloid fashion, the response to the situation–six students, one police officer. and one handgun–is completely blown out of proportion. Within minutes, hundreds of police officers, media vans, spectators, and snipers envelope the school. As always, no one cares what happens to the students except one beleaguered and sympathetic negotiator, Audrey McDonald (Vanessa Williams).
While Audrey tries to ensure the students’ safety against a testosterone driven bureaucracy, the students are sorting out their relations with each other. Within the school, we are treated to an urban Breakfast Club: can a student council member, a punk rocker, a hustler, a star basketball player, a gangbanger and a gifted artist come together, stand their ground and make a statement?
The cast does what it can with the thin characters allotted to them, but none are able to transcend the limitations of the script. It certainly doesn’t strengthen the film to have it led by r&b popster Usher, who will never be accused of being a natural actor. The scene in which he cries is especially painful to watch.
Directed by Craig Bolotin from his own script, Light It Up lacks subtlety. Not content to imply anything, Bolotin prefers the over-bearing, didactic approach to filmmaking. This is both condescending and annoying to the audience.
The most frustrating aspect of movies like Light It Up, is seeing such wasted potential. The issues the movie tries to deal with are important but to portray them in such a formulaic and contrived manner degrades the very problems the producers sought to address.