If you had ever taken control of your high school in a tense, armed standoff, what would your list of demands have been? Booking the Rolling Stones for prom night? Unlimited smoking and snacks on the premises? An end to all algebra classes?
Writer-director Craig Bolotin clearly believes that the priorities of the average teen-ager reside on much higher ground. In his "Light It Up," six students hold a wounded resource officer hostage in their Lincoln High, a facility located deep within the slums of New York City. They promise his safe return only if their alma mater receives more books, the grounds are more carefully maintained and a favorite teacher is reinstated.
An odd platoon of desperate kids is chosen to carry Bolotin's message that high-schoolers really want to learn, that they're smarter than anyone thinks and that the system oppresses them instead of helping them. They include the pregnant Lynn Sabatini (Sara Gilbert), the scholastically motivated but wrongfully accused Stephanie Williams (Rosario Dawson) and the guilt-ridden, conflicted Lester Dewitt (Usher Raymond). Despite their outward differences, they're basically good (albeit abused and neglected) kids who just want an even break.
After a simple protest goes awry -- and the school cop, Dante Jackson (Forest Whitaker), takes a bullet from his own gun -- the sextet holds up inside the building. Listing their demands over the Internet, they manage to hold off the trigger-happy police, with only compassionate negotiator Audrey McDonald (Vanessa L. Williams) and sympathetic teacher Ken Knowles (Judd Nelson) to lend support.
Bolotin, best known as a writer ("Black Rain"), infuses his scenes with considerable intensity. The dynamics among his mismatched group of hostage-takers rise and sink in rhythm with an escalating level of exterior tension that's fueled by a puzzled local media and the hyper-aggressive authorities. But he's too preoccupied with his socially aware agenda to notice that his overblown story is less effective as a cry for reform than as a career-day nightmare. ("Considering a future in law enforcement? Here are some pitfalls you might have overlooked.")
Give Bolotin credit for not immersing himself in the inarticulate swamp of "F-word" inanity and sexual games that is the average teen-targeted feature. But by making his motley crew the poster children for improved education legislation, he sacrifices honest drama on the altar of political correctness. And no simple-minded civics lesson is going to light up a screen.