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Even as it hews close to the familiar rhythms of the misunderstood-teen flick, Light It Up is unexpectedly satisfying feel-good agitprop. The social sparks that set off this tale of student rebellion in a dilapidated Queens public high school are hot-button enough to have been, you know, ripped from the headlines (crumbling educational infrastructure, police brutality, teen pregnancy, thickheaded technocrats, the Web), but the film’s conceit that there are kids out there who’d react to such ills with what amounts to armed insurrection is a breath of fresh air, even with its quaint whiff of old-school lefty political fantasy.
Written and directed by first-timer Craig Bolotin, Light It Up introduces the motley crew who’ll rise to the film’s unlikely challenge in music-vid style. There’s Lester (played credibly by singer Usher Raymond), the basketball star struggling with the Diallo-style execution of his father; there’s Stephanie (Rosario Dawson), the smart future doctor who just can’t get over how few books there are in class; and there’s Ziggy (Robert Ri’chard), a homeless graffiti artist who screams martyr the moment his softly beautiful face appears on screen. Lester has long played protective big brother to Ziggy, so when a hard-nosed cop (Forest Whitaker) assigned to sandlot duty accosts them, the expected accidental hell breaks loose, leading to what the cops outside call a hostage situation.
The “hostage takers” (rounded out by a couple of self-proclaimed white trash rejects and a thuggy hothead) soon decide that since their lives are basically over, they might as well hold on to the cop and ask for something big. The meeting where they cobble together their demands—more books, fix the windows, rehire a beloved teacher—is Light It Up‘s most poignant moment, as the kids come into a kind of political self-awareness. Light It Up ends exactly how you’d expect it to—not as harshly as it would in the real world, not as happily as it would in a perfect one either—but you’re left with the unexpected conviction that it wasn’t the kids on-screen who faltered.