Sweet sixteen

OK, it's unrealistic—but it works, for some reason.

IN THE OPENING shots of Desert Blue, a white sports utility vehicle rolls down an empty highway. The driver is a cultural studies professor (John Heard) on an "Americana" road trip in search of kitschy spectacles: a giant ice cream cone, the world's largest ball of twine, and a statue of the Jolly Green Giant. His teenage daughter, a blonde Hollywood brat, is less than enthusiastic.

Desert Blue

directed by Morgan J. Freeman

starring Brendan Sexton III, Kate

Hudson, Christina Ricci, John Heard

opens June 25 at Varsity

A truck accident resulting in the spillage of toxins leads to a quarantine when the two are stopped in the tiny outback town of Baxter, and these big-city folk must lodge there for several days. The prof's daughter, Skye (played by Goldie Hawn offspring Kate Hudson), kicks up a fuss at first—she has an all-important television audition in LA and if she has to wait any longer in this sinkhole, her "clothes are gonna go out of style." But we soon see the starlet hanging out with the Baxter kids, drinking with them in front of a bonfire, whacking oranges with a bat, and eventually falling in puppy love with one of the guys (played by Brendan Sexton III), who is named—cutely enough—Blue. (Skye Blue—get it?)

Thus is set up what should have been a classic cultural collision. With 89 residents, Baxter is the kind of dust bowl that restless kids can't wait to get out of. But young writer-director Morgan J. Freeman (not to be confused with veteran actor Morgan "Driving Miss Daisy" Freeman) has populated Baxter with teen characters who seem a little too smart to be stuck there. Neither college-bound nor gainfully employed, the rural kids—played by Sexton, Christina Ricci, Casey Affleck, and Sara Gilbert—are fit, handsome, disinterested in television, and apparently savvy about birth control.

Strangest of all, they seem content to stay put in Nowheresville. These kids would be more believable as aliens who've taken over human bodies.

That said, Desert Blue does manage to coast both on the charm of its young actors and its cheerful script, which plays almost like a nostalgic piece in which goodwill triumphs and teen rebellion is limited to a few acts of mischief. (Maybe it's that toxic spill, which turns out to be soda pop.) Even Ricci, generally cast as a legitimately bad girl, is reduced to benevolence: raccoon-eyed in her black makeup, her character likes to experiment with dynamite, but she's also the sheriff's daughter and ultimately proves—and does—good.

As he showed with his first movie, Hurricane Streets (1997), which won the Audience and Director's Awards at Sundance, Freeman is tugged by tales of tough kids shedding their armor. Whether it's through the budding romance of Blue and Skye, or Blue's attempts to protect his late father's dream, or Ricci's pyrotechnic wizardry unexpectedly turning her into a hero, Desert Blue comes across as a refreshing break from the batch of cynical high-school movies that have flooded the market of late. While it may be a bit hard to swallow at times, it's bracing to see kids do something other than coordinate their outfits and plan for the big prom finale.

 
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