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Sunday, December 10, 2006

Unaccompanied Minors

Unaccompanied Minors is best left for exactly that. This film, currently showing at the Essex Cinemas, is a great bit of silliness for the under ten crowd, but most likely anyone older than that will regret being unaccompanied by Jim Beam or Johnny Walker if they are forced to sit through this childish mutation of the old Home Alone series. Think of this as Home Alone 5: Stuck At the Airport with Friends.

This is not to say that
Unaccompanied Minors is a total bust of a movie. It does have its entertaining moments, and the cast is engaging, but there isn’t a thing in it that smacks of originality or particularly clever writing. If it showed up as a Christmas episode of just about any network tv sitcom in the past 50 years it would fit right in, especially if it had been laden with a laugh track and commercials. The premise is fairly simple. A diverse group of kids traveling cross country on various flights are all snowed in at Chicago’s fictional Hoover International Airport, meet by accident and chaos ensues. It’s the chaos that makes up the story, along with a few life lessons, naturally, about growing up, having tolerance of others, and taking the time to understand that there is even a reason sometimes for the cold, bitter hearts of those hardened adults who don’t seem to understand that kids just wanna have fun.

An over-all theme also appears to address the nature of children of divorce. Four of the five central
Unaccompanied Minors are traveling for the holidays as part of the ritualistic swapping of custody between parents, and these kids prove tough and resilient, not to mention resourceful, in entertaining themselves during this unexpected layover. Perhaps this is meant to reassure parents in the audience who feel guilty about what the effects of their divorce may have actually had on their own children, or the cinematic kids are portrayed as coming from broken families because the screenwriters are simply savvy enough to know that these days odds are that the audience is going to just naturally skew in that direction.

Airport security is headed up by Oliver (Lewis Black; tv’s “The Daily Show”), who is in a foul mood because he has also been snowed-in and has now missed his flight to Hawaii, which would have been his first vacation in over five years, so he is in no happy place when it comes for having more problems dumped in his lap. His inept staff, including his soft-hearted assistant Zach Van Bourke (Wilmer Valderrama; Fast Food Nation), Head Guard Hoffman (Rob Riggle; Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby), and “Guards in the Hall” (actually “Kids in the Hall” alumni Kevin McDonald,
Bruce McCulloch, and Mark McKinney) are assigned to round up all Unaccompanied Minors, children under the age of sixteen, and corral them into an underground storage area where they are to be monitored at all times and restricted from leaving. This place looks suspiciously like a Walmart having a 50% sale on Playstation 3 on Christmas Eve morning. It isn’t pretty. Obviously somebody has given the hundred or so detainees here more sugar than is grown in Brazil in the course of a year. These don’t look like kids. They look like brain-eating zombies out of a George Romero flick as they rush to pile onto Zach when he enters the compound with new arrivals.

As Zach is overpowered, this gives a random few the opportunity to escape and from this point the movie establishes its relationships and larger
plot. Spencer Davenport (Dyllan Christopher; Seabiscuit) is the obvious Alpha male of the group; he is a budding teen heartthrob (who turns 15 in real life this week) that Lisa Simpson of tv’s famous family would refer to as a poster child for her favorite reading material, “Non-Threatening Sexually Ambiguous Teen Boy Magazine.” Perfect for him is the rich, uptight “Princess” Grace Conrad (Gina Mantegna: 13 Going on 30), who takes an immediate dislike for Spencer and looks down on his middle class lifestyle and clothing, nicknaming him “K-Mart.” Naturally, this can only lead to puppy love and that inevitable life lesson about learning to see the real person inside and not just the social status of an individual.

There is also Donna Malone (Quinn Shephard; From Other Worlds), the tough-as-nails tween who is quick to keep the “Princess” in her place and is
fearless when it comes to taking risks. Who better for her to team up with then than with Charlie (Tyler James Williams; star of tv’s “Everybody Hates Chris”), who is the brains of this outfit and a self-proclaimed nerd? Williams really is the scene stealer of this show, and director Paul Feig (who has previously directed ~surprise!~ only tv sitcoms, albeit some excellent ones like “Arrested Development” and “The Office”) is smart enough to turn his camera on Williams as often as he can for reaction shots and individual moments of business, essentially giving him more screen time than any of the others.

Rounding out the escapees is Timothy "Beef" Wellington (Brett Kelly; Bad Santa), as the chubby outsider who is conveniently made to disappear on a mission of his own for most of the picture, excusing him from the physical hijinks the others engage in as the movie becomes an escalating game of tag between the kids and Oliver’s team, who are determined to bring them back to captivity.

What the security men don’t understand, however, is that the kids have a mission of their own. Spencer’s younger sister Katherine (debuting Dominique Saldana) is still with the other Unaccompanied Minors, who have now been moved to a nearby hotel for the night, and Spencer had promised his sister as well as their mother that no matter what he would look out for her and he would definitely make sure that Santa would find her wherever they happened to be before morning. Not one to disappoint a little girl, Spencer and his new-found family of friends are determined to find a way
out of the airport and to the hotel with a proper gift for young Katie no matter what Oliver and his goons try to do to stop them.

Well, being Christmas and all, you just know that eventually things will work out, sappy sweetness will overcome even the grumpiest of grumps, Oliver himself, and the entire airport will be filled with the Christmas spirit thanks entirely to the
Unaccompanied Minors. All will be forgiven, parents will arrive, new truths will be confessed and forgiven, and new friends will be made. Music will swell and by the time the credits begin to roll the seats will be empty, trash left all over the floor of the theater and all those touching lessons writers Jacob Meszaros and Mya Stark slipped in will be as forgotten as last year’s Christmas toys. After all, the biggest lesson of youth at this time of year is always “What’s next?” and Unaccompanied Minors is just one more stop on a list of time-fillers for the youngsters waiting for Christmas Day.

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