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Kitchen Party

1997, Starring Scott Speedman, Tygh Runyan, Laura Harris. Directed by Gary Burns.

Gary Burns' debut film, 1995's The Suburbanators, drew critical comparison to Richard Linklater's Slacker with its loose and plot-free portrayal of a day in the life of young adults loafing around Calgary. Perhaps wishing to extend the flattering association further, Burns' follow up Kitchen Party seems to take a page from the book of Dazed and Confused. Like Dazed, Kitchen Party strives to be a coming-of-age film centered on a party, but lacks the focus to completely pull it off. Jumping between parties, and eventually from one catastrophe to another, the basic story gets lost in a glut of less important plotlines serving Burns' skewering of affluent suburban life.

Keeping his own small party confined to the kitchen is the only way that Scott (Scott Speedman) can hope to avoid sullying his parent's picture perfect living room. Even a small depression in the symmetrically vacuumed carpet might give his father a reason to keep him from moving away to finish his schooling. Scott believes that being forced to attend the local community college will sentence him to an unproductive life in the basement like his pothead older brother Steve (Jason Wiles).

Meanwhile, Scott's parents have a cocktail party of their own to attend. As kids start arriving at Scott's with their beer, the adults across town begin to turn nasty and petty. What starts out as a fairly innocent evening of mature conversation quickly escalates into a drunken clash of egos and fists.

Things aren't going well at Scott's either. On his way to the bash, Lester Jr. (Dave Cox) gets into a minor accident with the mint condition 1970s Beaumont that he and his dad have painstakingly restored. More disaster strikes when Scott's ignored girlfriend Tammy takes off with Steve, and a kitchen chair falls into the living room, leaving an impression in the carpet pile. Things continue to spiral out of control until the two parties eventually collide.

Kitchen Party isn't a bad film, just an unsure film, and there are several things that Burns gets right. A decent job is done to capture the authentically disenfranchised mindset of the modern teenager. These kids are frustrated and trapped in a world where their parents care more about possessions than they do their offspring. Even before the party starts, it's already ruined--Scott is unable to escape his overbearing parents in the form of the living room carpet just as Lester Jr. fears parental reprisal for banging up the car. In each case, these objects become symbols of oppression, and prevent the teenagers from enjoying themselves in any capacity.

Usually this would be enough, but Burns can't resist the urge to give every single kid at the party some kind of unique emotional conflict, and then try to have that play out dramatically. Although each of these digressions is interesting and occasionally quite funny, it ultimately proves frustrating, as it diverts from the main plot--the question of Scott's sense of responsibility.

As characters, the parents aren't quite as fleshed out as the teens. Burns instead depicts the behavior of the adults as exaggerated reflections of their children. The fathers, especially Scott's, are loud and bigoted, and their topics of conversation range from cheating on their wives to defending a friend indicted for soliciting underage prostitutes. The mothers are usually too drunk to care about anything. Despite all the animosity towards their children (which is often reciprocated), the achievements and disappointments of their kids dominate the conversation. By bringing their disparate worlds uneasily together in the third act, Burns seems to want to offer some sort of resolution, but the multiple storylines keep a clear-cut ending too far out of reach.

Besides the careening plot directions, there is a basic story flaw that keeps the film from becoming anything better than just average. I find it highly unlikely that parents who are obsessed with bragging about the success of their children would tug the leash so strongly on their son just for denting the carpet--why would Scott's father want to sabotage his own social standing among his peers?

Viewers just looking for a hit of Speedman or some typical teen high jinks along the lines of Can't Hardly Wait may find themselves inadvertently turned off by the film's heavier overtones, but Kitchen Party proves that Burns is one of the more interesting Canadian directors working today. Despite some basic problems with his sophomore effort, the film serves as a nice introduction to his work.

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