American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
As recently as 1985, our view of high school was so innocent that a movie like "The Breakfast Club" could involve five teenage trouble makers working things out in unsupervised detention. Now look at "Light It Up." The same kinds of kids take hostages and get involved in an armed standoff with the police.
The movie unfolds at an inner-city high school where the heat doesn't work, the winter wind blows in through broken windows, and most students don't have copies of their textbooks. But the students are basically good kids--not the crazed dopers and gang-bangers depicted in so many movies about high schools in trouble.
The ingredients for a tragedy are assembled early. A new security guard with the ominous name of Dante Jackson (Forest Whitaker) has come to work. He's got problems. One student pegs him: "A $5 cop with a $50 attitude." Meanwhile, a teacher named Knowles (Judd Nelson, from the original "Breakfast Club") is wandering the halls with his students, looking for a heated classroom. He eventually takes them to a fast-food restaurant. Misunderstandings multiply when they return to the school. The guard gets into a shoving match with some of the students, his gun goes off, and a routine day turns into a hostage crisis.
The ringleader is a good student and star athlete named Lester, played by R&B singer Usher Raymond, who shows real screen presence. Other students include Rosario Dawson, as a girl who counsels moderation; Sara Gilbert, as a girl so steeped in misery, she's basically just along for the ride; Robert Ri'chard as a goofy kid who unwittingly starts the trouble; Fredro Starr as a hothead with a police record, and Clifton Collins Jr. as Lester's pal.