You really do have to wonder where certain filmmakers’ heads are at when they conceive of a movie. Battlefield America is the most preposterous, exploitive, cloying, artificial film of its kind since Standing Ovation. Written and directed by Chris Stokes, it’s essentially of the junior division of his own You Got Served, which is to say that it tells the story of competing dance crews made up almost entirely of children. Not only is this grossly implausible, it’s also incredibly disturbing; by replacing adult dancers with kids in the ten-to-twelve age range, Stokes has created a spectacle no less bizarre and fetishistic than a child beauty pageant. That most of them are boys instructed by male dancers only makes it even more unsettling, especially since a select few of the crew members are effeminate and dressed androgynously.
All leads to the dance competition the film takes its title from, which is held in Los Angeles at the Staples Center. During the finale, we’re made aware that some of the screaming audience members are the dancers’ parents. This begs the question: Where were these parents when their kids were performing in one of the film’s several music-video like dance sequences, all of which take place in secluded back alleys and abandoned basketball courts and are presided over by shady thug stereotypes? One also wonders if there are enough preteens in the city of Los Angeles that could believably dance in a street crew, or even comprise the sum total of the huddled spectators cheering them on. For everything Stokes tried to achieve, one of the most basic should have been an idea that was at the very least plausible.
When the film isn’t objectifying its child stars in dance routines that get increasingly difficult to tell apart, it forces us to endure a plot so manufactured and sickly sweet that it could easily be printed on the back of a Mrs. Butterworth’s bottle. We meet Sean Lewis (Marques Houston), a successful advertising executive who’s on the verge of being made one of the partners. The night he celebrates his promotion is the same night he gets pulled over and arrested for a DUI. His attorney is able to pull a few strings and get a jail sentence reduced to community service. And so he reports to a local community center, where the director, the lovely Ms. Parker (Lynn Whitfield), gives him the option of being a mentor to a group of boys who are the laughing stock of the street dancing scene. Sean wants nothing to do with them. He hates children. And initially, the feeling is mutual.
Already, you can see the wheels turning. The film will not only be about the freeing and redemptive power of dance, it will also be a buddy story, where Sean learns to open his heart and not be so materialistic. He becomes especially close with a boy named Eric Smith (Tristen M. Carter), whose sass talking masks hurt over a drug-addicted mother and a father who abandoned him. As all this is being established, Stokes works in a puppy-love romance between Eric and Ms. Parker’s niece, Chantel (Chandler Kinney), who speaks softly, smiles beautifully, and delivers flowery dialogue that would have been better suited for a second-tier greeting card. And, of course, Sean and Ms. Parker will inevitably fall in love. All of this happens only because that’s what convention requires. Absolutely nothing happens organically.
Meanwhile, Sean, who is admittedly not a dancer, takes it upon himself to train Eric and his friends for numerous dance auditions, which then leads to the Battlefield America competition. They’re repeatedly confronted in public places by a rival dance crew led by Hank “The Shockwave” Adams (Christopher Michael Jones). It’s one thing to have influence over a group of adults, but when you knowingly brainwash a group of boys into being bullies, you have officially crossed into dangerous territory. Shockwave and his crew are the current reigning champions of Battlefield America, which should already tell you everything you need to know about how the movie ends.
I take that back. Stokes also works in scenes with Sean’s stuffy boss, a hardened prosecution attorney, a mom who refuses to let her son dance at the competition, and the sudden reappearance of Eric’s father. To say that the finale wraps everything up a neat little package would be a massive understatement. Never have I witnessed a more miraculous turnaround, especially with such a large group of characters. It’s bad enough that there is not one iota of truth in Battlefield America; to turn child actors into hapless victims of the plot is just plain inexcusable. Stokes objectifies them, I suspect more to satisfy his own personal filmmaking desires than for the sake of entertaining the audience. This is a shamefully phony movie – one of the year’s worst.