Friday, March 28

Unaccompanied Minors and reasons to care

Who cares, right? Unaccompanied Minors - that tissue of kooky observation, first broadcast as a segment on Chicago Public Radio's This American Life - certainly didn't sound like a movie idea. I'll admit that the lunatics-take-the-asylum situation is ripe for highjinks. It appears to have been a stepping stone, for most people on this project, rather than a hit. But it's eighteen months old. Why bother?

Unaccompanied Minors is a great example of a small idea, inflated with entertainment, aimed at a large clear audience, and played to the heights of it's budget. That it wasn't a more satisfying story isn't because the writers didn't try.

In fact, if we assume the movie worked rather than that I was in a mood, the ending grabbed me the way long distance phone commercials used to, right by the emotional jugular. While it may say too much about my upbringing, the conversion of the bad guy, the forgiveness for the troublemakers, the romance that buds between the hero and the girl who hated him, they're all the ending of the story we wanted to see. And because they arethe right ending, go figure, I almost forgot the hollow middle. Almost.

Charlie (Dyllan Christopher) and his sister Katherine (Dominique Saldana) get stranded with a hundred or so other Unaccompanied Minors (UMs) in the ring of hell known as the Hoover airport. Katherine worries about being home in time for Santa to find her the way an addict worries when the crack house is empty. She's tracking him with update from NORAD and fears most of all that won't find her.

Charlie knows that his mother in far San Diego can't retrieve them. He fears his father won't inconvenience himself to rescue them. Reluctantly, he accepts his fate; he'll watch over his little sister, who's interfering with his attempts to impress Grace Malone (Gina Montegna). When Charlie hints to Katherine that Santa's not real, she threatens to go to pieces. Soon after, Charlie accepts that his mission is to make sure that Santa visits his sister.

This sentimental goal is perfect for the Charlie, who's neither boy nor man: his choices will let us know which one he is. But moments later, when the vast concrete holding cell breaks out in food-fight mayhem, Katherine disappears in the shuffle and Charlie...searches for her. Right? No, he dashes out the door, where we follow the parallel stories of four escapees who will become the focus of the cat-and-mouse act two action. Charlie's naive, but the filmmakers should know better.

Here's the anatomy:
Catalyst: Charlie and Katherine become trapped in the airport among hundreds of UMs

First act break: After a solitary lark around the mall, Charlie is returned to the holding pen by the director of security (Oliver, the antagonist played by Lewis Black). It's bad. Katherine and the others have been taken to a nearby lodge for Christmas Eve.

Second act: Charlie and kids trick Olver and escape to try to reunite with Katherine, but what really follows is a good looking chain of set pieces that rely heavily on putting kids where they shouldn't be.

End of second act: Charlie and kids confined to solitary. I kid you not.

Third act: Kids escape (by heating duct, of course) and restore the Christmas decorations that Oliver had banned, bringing the true spirit of Christmas back to Hoover airport. The magic of their Christmas generosity transforms all of the main characters.
I didn't care about Charlie. He was far too cool about his mission and his sister's anxious fretting. I didn't care about his father, who finally arrived. I didn't believe that Charlie wanted Katherine to believe in Santa one more year. I hoped that Oliver would be served justice, but he wasn't. Instead, he was outsmarted and finally just gave up.

But I hoped that Charlie and Grace would admit that they liked each other. And they did. But this comedic, happy ending marriage should have been frustrated by his sister Katherine, ideally because he has to save her illusions from being punctured one last time.

Honestly, I hope someone will remake this movie some day, take the story and turn it on it's head, so that it's no longer a story about a bad security chief and trapped kids, but instead, it's a story more like Lost. A story of travelers against travelers, until the kids teach them the true meaning of Christmas.