When 13-year-old Mario Van Peebles made his onscreen debut in his father’s 1971 film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, it was in a hellishly uncomfortable sequence in which his character lost his virginity to an older prostitute. Van Peebles has opted to go in another direction when putting his own children onscreen. We The Party is a determinedly positive teen comedy starring Mandela Van Peebles as a junior who, okay, is hoping to lose his virginity, though in a more wholesome manner. Other Van Peebles siblings—Makaylo, Morgana, and Maya—play fellow students at Baldwin Hills High, which is peopled with kids from the upscale Los Angeles African-American community, as well as kids from tougher backgrounds.
Mandela and his group of effortlessly diverse friends make an American Pie-ish bet as to who can first get laid before prom night. He’s got his eye on “vegan goddess” Simone Battle, whose super-strict father is a local cop. His own dad (Mario Van Peebles) is one of his teachers, a man whose classroom idealism about the environment and making sacrifices comes through as a little too demanding in his parenting style. His son just wants to have fun and buy a car, though he’s naturally going to learn about being a better person as the film progresses.
We The Party is a typical high-school movie set in a high school that’s atypical, in terms of what normally gets put onscreen. The film offers a window on life as an upper-middle-class black teenager in love with hip-hop culture, but coming from an essentially suburban background. At a house party, the kids have a freestyle rap battle—Snoop Dogg, playing the thuggish older brother of the class problem kid (Y.G.), snickers at them and at the host’s plea to keep things clean because his mother’s upstairs. They’re privileged and acknowledge that they’re lucky, and the film’s unhip, sincere dedication to community and helping others fits in with its generally wholesome though never lifeless characters. Van Peebles compensates for his stylistic clunkiness—the film overuses split screens and sometimes looks so bright, it could be a ’90s sitcom—with funny, unexpected sparks of life. How to resist a film in which one kid taunts another by quoting Mo’Nique’s monologue from Precious?