~ with window into the way this film and stage musical play off each other ~
The teens in the core group are driven, at times obsessively, by personal dramas. Their actions make little sense until the secrets they harbor each get revealed.
To “make the world a better place,” Zachary has taken on one cause after another, ever since his sister died. (“So Much Pain”) Dezha (pronounced DAY jha) focuses on one thing alone; chafing at the limitations of high school she yearns for her real life as an actress. (“Backwater High”) Eventually though, we hear there’s more behind her dream too. Without the support of parents, Adeeno heeds his grandma’s counsel to ‘make do,’ which allows him to feel good enough. (“Making it Through”) Maggie, Dezha’s friend from earliest childhood, has the simplest desires (“I’ll Take What I Have”), melting over Adeeno even when he barely notices her. And Ann, the impassioned dancer as well as one of the most vulnerable kids in school, isolates herself from everyone, especially from guys. Unbeknownst to her classmates, Ann has taken refuge from an abusive uncle, hiding nights with her little sister in a lean-to in the woods. Tabitha and Jonathan round out the odd group, both dealing in extra measure with being viewed as strange, due to shared intrigue in paranormal. (“How Do We Know What’s Out There?”) All secretly wonder at the futures.
These individuals butt up against the more predictable popular crowd led by Grant. While clearly the coolest guy in school, with following in his loyal Buddy, gorgeous Shari and cheerleader Dale, Grant reveals a darker side as he belittles anyone who’s different.
Ordinarily Grant keeps his aggressions on the subtle side, but his assumptions about Ann draw him into the night. With Buddy watching on, Grant tries to have his way with Ann near her make-shift home. She fends off his surprise attack, but not before he’s undermined her shaky sense of security.
The outcome for Ann and her little sister, for whom Ann has taken on complete responsibility, remains in question until Zachary’s activism lasers in on their home front. He convinces the others to help put on a show, a benefit which ultimately ends up getting Ann and Lily under a roof again. In the process, Adeeno and the group have to stand up to Grant, effectively pulling the punch out of his tormentings.
Teachers and staff in this contemporary high school appear as individuals as well, with their own real-life issues. Kids have little sympathy for their adult problems and shortcomings though, even in the opening number,“Awful Day.” In fact, students let loose with a fast-paced tirade ~ what most teens would like to say to their teachers and parents. (“Lighten Up!”)
The kids further react to societal pressures in the Contemporary World Problems class. (“Insane Changes”) Their accompanying ‘crunch dance’ shows the weight of craziness that kids feel in the world today. And then they create some of their own insanity through a vicious, all-too-familiar rampant rumor. (“What Happened?”)
One teaching duo though, does inspire the students’ trust and indulgence. Mr. Turner and Ms. Mac even get kids to dancing with them as the two swing to “Your Soul’s Calling.” This teaching team may drive the students nuts with their hyper-enthusiasm, but they also charm the kids into a willingness to stay present and open to life.
Principal Rivabene (pronounced Reevah BEHNay) who is only featured in the film, over and over again greases the wheels for the group’s making headway in their endeavors. He’s the one who’s set the tone for teachers like Turner and Mac to spin their magic. Rivabene shows a genuine interest in students and teachers alike, especially for those like Buddy and Adeeno, who might fall through the cracks, challenging and engaging them, so they at least have a chance. The students overall take Mr. Rivabene for granted, but they also turn to him when it looks like all they’ve worked for is about to fail. In their student-made show, they’d even managed to pull the school cliques together with an over-the-top choreography (the girls’ basketball starters arcing balls over the heads of the artsier dancers, Dezha and Zachary juggling amongst them all. (“What You Put Into the World ... comes back to you”) Mr. Rivabene calls in countless favors from the community so the show can go on. In the end though, even with the classic musical progression, the film version surprises ... and the kids step into the lead, with Rivabene hearing his own inspired wisdom returning to him through his students.
In the stage script which stops short of the film’s ‘reality,’ audiences are going to get to root for the ones at risk, with the show rousing into a more traditional up-beat ending, the title song so fitting too for high school or college graduation ceremonies. After all it will be “In Our Hands Now!”