The proof is in the panties.
Sketch, Random, and History are three high school outsiders who decide to make their dateless senior prom night a little more exciting. At one of the many post-dance parties, they hook up with three lovely ladies, one of which is Sketch's long lamented dream girl Trina. As the three couples bounce from gathering to gathering, they constantly run into Mario and his gang of thug wannabes. Mario is Trina's abusive and very overprotective boyfriend. He wants Trina back by whatever means necessary. Sketch just wants a chance to express his true feelings to his fantasy lady. And Trina, well, she's not sure what she wants. Typical of most long nights of drinking, dancing, and smoking reefer, confessions, confrontations, and miscommunications occur. In the end, friends learn the truth about each other and reality replaces daydream as those who are truly meant to be together spend some of their last few hours as members of the class of The Kingston High getting better "acquainted."
The Kingston High has a true split personality; as a piece of fiction and as a motion picture, half of it works well. And yet, there is the other half that constantly threatens to—and eventually does—undermine it. On the plus side are aspects like the script; an intelligent overview of the trials and tribulations of growing up and looking for love within the high school environment. There is a natural ring to the dialogue that allows the characters to interact without resorting to overstatement or obvious clichés. Director/screenwriter Stephen Townsend creates a smart, realistic story of young men on the make, and the women they run in to. He has a special insight into both the male and female of the species. Townsend's direction is also another positive point for the film. The compositions and framing, which should be (and are) hampered by the direct to video quality of the camerawork, are accomplished and professional. He has a good eye for angles and understands how to support his story with excellent performances (well, mostly excellent performances) and a fluid editing style. Overall, the tone of The Kingston High is light, airy and engaging. There is a sense of camaraderie and chemistry between the actors and while most seem older than the young years they are playing, they definitely capture the mindset and mentality of teenagers on the cusp of adulthood. If the flaws in the production weren't present, The Kingston High would be a fine first effort from a new voice in African American cinema.
But the problems facing the film are almost insurmountable. And chief among them is the performance of lead actor Jermaine Gladman as Sketch. Part of the problem is purely aesthetic. Gladman is too whiny and awkward to be taken seriously as an honest loner and loser. He seems lost, like a hip-hop Porky's Peewee transplanted into The Last Black American Virgin. But the other facet of his performance is far more controversial. Frankly, he's not "ethnic" enough, which in retrospect seems unfair, but true. Among his more urban counterparts, he comes across like Byron Woody Allen. The rest of the cast does their best to bring a pragmatic, non-mannered style to their work. But no matter how hard everyone else tries, it's hard to overcome Gladman's nagging nebbish. Almost impossible to surmount is the digital camera crassness of the image. This is one independent project that looks far too much like a less than glorified amateur home movie. The substandard quality of the picture constantly drags the professional aspirations of the movie back into the extremely low budget alley that it appears to have been processed in. It's forgivable that, within a limited financial scheme, digital technology was employed. But what's not excusable is the inconsistent, atmosphere destroying continuity errors that result. By the end, the lame image and some of the pat plotting issues thwart the organic ambiance of the film. Occasionally, just when you think you have the characters motivations all figured out, they go and do something "formula" or hackneyed to remind us this is a movie, not a docudrama slice of life.
Staying with the whole AC/DC quality of the movie The Kingston High as a DVD is also a horribly mixed bag. The video and audio are source-oriented atrocious. There are massive video flares, artifacting, grain, compression and color inconsistencies. True, this was filmed on less than blockbuster equipment, but to try and then pass this image off as how you actually wanted the film to look is disingenuous to the audience. As is the Dolby Digital Stereo. There is not much going on here, either in the words or the music. The channels are barely used and the soundtrack remains flat and tepid throughout. As for bonus content, we get a halfway decent set of filmographies and cast and crew bios, but the photo gallery consists of images Photoshopped from the film onto the cheesy yellow keep case cover. They look terrible. About the only acceptable aspect of the digital presentation is the full-length audio commentary by writer/director Townsend and producer Mary Glynn. Taking it upon themselves to offer a kind of instructional overview of no-budget filmmaking, they are engaging, witty, and brutally honest narrators. Glynn, in particular, loves to take Townsend to task for overstretching his financial boundaries for the sake of art, and Townsend is equally resolute on issues of casting, performance, and rewrites. This is a very interesting and informative track, and it adds a great deal to the DVD presentation of the title. It's too bad that some big name or mid major studio didn't have more faith in Townsend's words and give him a budget and equipment to match his imagination. As it stands, The Kingston High is a clever, cautious film that loses much of its energy and originality in a less than stellar presentation.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary with Director Stephen Townsend and Producer Mary Eillis
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