Mario Van Peebles has been in the world of film and television for much of his life. In addition to his many acting roles like "dude-who-falls-into-shark-mouth" in 'Jaws: The Revenge' and the short-lived television series 'Sonny Spoon,' Van Peebles has also had a long career behind the camera directing films and television series. His directorial work includes such notable films as 'New Jack City,' 'Panther' and 'Baadasssss!' while his television work features 'Lost,' 'Sons of Anarchy' and Kelsey Grammer's 'Boss.'
All in all, that's a fairly impressive resume. It's also one that suggests Van Peebles possesses the kind of talent and competence required to maintain a successful career in show business. Perhaps that's why his most recent effort, the high school dramedy, 'We the Party,' is so surprising in both its substandard presentation and its storytelling. Now, no one is expecting Mario Van Peebles to suddenly come up with work that unexpectedly makes him one of the most sought after directors in America – but the man has, on occasion, spun a fairly entertaining yarn; he's a competent storyteller, so the bar is set at least that high.
In that regard, perhaps the trouble with 'We the Party' is the lack of any discernable story for Van Peebles to keep his audience even mildly entertained. There are plenty of things going on in 'We the Party,' but which "thing" the audience is supposed to pay attention to, or connect with, is a question Van Peebles and his lengthy list of (mostly) new or incredibly inexperienced actors are never able to completely answer.
Much of the film's action takes place at Baldwin Hills High in Los Angeles, and concerns a group of multi-ethnic students as they bide their time, awaiting either graduation or prom, or both. The film stars Mario's son Mandela Van Peebles as (Hendrix), who is, coincidentally, also the son of Dr. Sutter – played by Mario. Hendrix hangs out with a diverse group of friends, each with their own action-figure-like stock personality quirks, intended to set them apart and give the appearance of individuality and characterization, but, really, they're all just different looking versions of the same, mostly sex-obsessed ideal that most films think comprise the thoughts of young men in high school.
It's not that the film is necessarily wrong in that regard, it's simply that 'We the Party' will eventually attempt something along the lines of altering the awareness of its viewers by spewing out a whole mess of trite banalities about the media's influence over these young people's lives. Yet all this spewing is for naught, as the film ultimately remains ineffective in suggesting actual character enhancement through the storyline.
Hendrix and his friends – who have names like Chowder (Patrick Cage II), Obama (Makaylo Van Peebles) and Quicktime (Moises Arias) – bounce around the thin plot with their eyes on girls (when they're not recording video up their skirts), dreaming about someday owning cars, throwing parent-sanctioned house-parties, engaging in rap battles and a lose-your-virginity competition. This all happens while Hendrix tries to help his dream girl, Cheyenne (Simone Battle), with her graduation project: a documentary about some of the city's homeless.
With all of that going on, Van Peebles still finds time to throw in a sub-plot about rapper-in-training, C.C. (Y.G.), and his ultra-thug older brother, played by Snoop Dog. The end result is nothing short of a mess that Van Peebles struggles to cover up with some overly stylistic editing choices and a whole host of soundtrack selections that reduce 'We the Party' to something less cohesive than a music video.
The film sees Mario as the only Van Peebles delivering a convincing performance, but it's one that stands out in its direct contradiction of itself. Van Peebles, here, is showing what all dads likely wish to be: That of the man who understands and can speak to his and other children, but also gets to be the one who reprimands them (only from a caring place of genuine concern). Beyond the recognition of the elder Van Peebles (although his father, Melvin, makes a brief cameo), 'We the Party' comes off as an after school special posing as a low-budget indie with some street cred. Ultimately, though, it's failed attempt at creating a coming of age film with a message.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
The 'We the Party' blu-ray comes on a single 25GB disc, packaged in an eco-friendly keepcase. It's also available as a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack.
Shot on RED, 'We the Party' should benefit from the use of newer technology in terms of its cinematographic ambitions. As one would expect from a film shot in a digital format, there is a noticeable absence of the kind of "natural" grain one would normally see from a picture produced on film. This glossy approach to filmmaking may be advantageous in terms of budget (which 'We the Party' clearly had very little of), but the format can often leave the film looking flat and lifeless. And that is precisely the case with 'We the Party.'
Sadly, either by a simple stylistic choice, or through some poor transferring, the picture appears to be compensating for the flat visuals by over-clocking the saturation in nearly every frame. Reds practically leap off the screen, running so hot as to lose the effect of contrast with the rest of the color spectrum. This is especially noticeable during darker scenes where the mostly consistent black levels become awash with super-hot reds and yellows. Whites are completely blown out; an effect that results in exteriors (windows and doorways) that are so bright as to suggest the characters are about to have a collective out-of-body experience. Exteriors are even worse; white-balance is so out of whack that the various enclaves and neighborhoods of Los Angeles all appear stark, dry, and nearly post-apocalyptic.
Elsewhere, fine details only exist in extreme close-ups, otherwise they're lost in the aforementioned flatness of the picture. Many of the details in the wider shots become victim to either the cinematographer's incessant use of shallow focus, or they're devoured by white light creeping in from every angle. Ultimately, this is not a good representation of what the digital format can accomplish on low-budget films.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track works admirably for a low-budget film filled primarily with dialogue and the occasional selection from the film's soundtrack. Surround channels are used to decent effect in crowd and party scenes, enveloping the listener in the kind of jumbled noise one commonly associates with loud gatherings of teenagers all trying to talk over one another.
When necessary, the rear channels provide another layer to one of the many songs from the soundtrack, and when played in scene offer dependable imaging with the onscreen details. As one would expect, LFE is especially rich and deep during these moments, but there are scant examples of it anywhere else in the film.
Since 'We the Party' is dialogue driven, it's nice to see that the film's audio delivers each syllable with crystal clear accuracy, regardless of the character. Spoken words are never difficult to understand, whether they come from a 16-year-old girl, or a toothless septuagenarian. Occasionally, audio levels can cause dialogue from those with a deeper tone (like Mario Van Peebles) to become indistinct or lose clarity, but here the audio track renders every overwrought word perfectly distinct.
There's no doubt that Mario Van Peebles had something he wanted to say with this film in regards the consumer culture that is constantly nudging young men and women into making unreal expectations for the lives that lie ahead of them. We know this because Peebles' character comes right out and says it…over and over again. Therein lies the problem with 'We the Party': It has so much that it wants to say, but it never bothers to find an elegant (or even adequate) delivery system to carry its pretentious message. That dearth of narrative leaves not only the film at a loss, but the intended audience of the message as well.