14 April 2008 | ceebeegee
Fascinating, flawed but compulsively watchable
School Daze is billed as a musical comedy but is better described as a comedy-drama with musical numbers as commentary--the only non-diegetic number is "Good and Bad Hair," Lee's all-girl fantasy homage to West Side Story that addresses colorism between the "paper bag-light" sorority Gamma Rays and the darker activist girls. Ebert wrote that this was the first movie he'd seen in a while where the black characters relate to each other instead of a hypothetical white audience--it is this that gives the movie its engrossing authenticity. (If it matters, I'm white.)
As funny as the movie can be, it's also incredibly hard-hitting--there's a sequence in the last 20 minutes where Julian, "Big Brother Al-migh-tee," insists his girlfriend "prove" her love, that's almost unwatchable and yet brutally honest. Lee has been called sexist for his underwritten female characters--there may be some truth to that but School Daze is far more critical of the men than the women. Rachel, Dap's girlfriend, is perhaps the most levelheaded, likable character in the movie, and is strong and supportive of Dap while still maintaining her independence. Even the Gamma Rays, who come off as shallow and colorist in the beginning, are sympathetic as they stand up for and try to aid the pledges during hazing. The characters who come off the worst are the GPG brothers who are, almost to a man, brutish, sadistic and crude. Julian in particular is unredeemable--clever, manipulative and almost sociopathic in his treatment of Jane. Lee supposedly based the movie on his observations at Morehouse and the movie stands as a scathing indictment against the black fraternity system and its abuse of the women's auxiliaries (aka "Little Sisters").
The movie has structural weaknesses (the ending is problematic and seems to come out of nowhere although it fits thematically) but its biggest problem is Lee's flat performance as Half-Pint (and, frankly, he looks a little too old for it). I love Lee's movies but his early tendency to cast himself in major roles was a real weakness--he's just not a good enough actor and his performance always jerks me out of the story. The rest of the cast is fantastic, though, especially Tisha Campbell as Jane and Giancarlo Esposito as Julian. Notice must also be given to Bill Lee's wonderful score. Ultimately it's a movie whose heart and imagination overcome its flaws.