'Minors' defangs a biting radio tale

Chicago Tribune

A layover disguised as a film, "Unaccompanied Minors" tells a John Hughes-ian tale of six kids stranded at an airport over the holidays. It comes from a story (a sharp nine-minute number called "Babysitting," by Susan Burton) originally broadcast on the Ira Glass-hosted radio series "This American Life." With that pedigree you think: Promising. Unconventional. Yet the screenplay apparently went through some sort of airport security scanner that sucked out all the quirks.

Burton's story, which you can hear on www.thislife.org, touched on the theme of children of divorced parents shuttling, routinely, from one city to another. For many kids, an airport on Christmas Eve becomes, in Burton's words, "the transfer point between Mom and Dad."

Screenwriters Jacob Meszaros and Mya Stark flatten that rich seriocomic premise into a terminal variation on "The Breakfast Club." Traveling from Mom's house in Colorado to Dad's in Michigan, Spencer (Dyllan Christopher) and his sister Katherine (Dominique Saldana) find themselves snowed in at an unspecified Midwestern airport. They're joined by a gaggle of other kids in similar situations, including the upscale "Mean Girls" wannabe (Gina Mantegna), the Ally Sheedy knockoff (Quinn Shephard), the Harvard-bound whiz kid ("Everybody Hates Chris' " Tyler James Williams) and the superhero-worshipping loner ("Bad Santa's" Brett Kelly).

Under the stern eye of the passenger relations manager (top-billed Lewis Black, evidently adding little or none of his own material) and the more sympathetic supervision of his No. 2 (Wilmer Valderrama), the kids lead their adult handlers on one antic chase after another, inside and outside the airport. More adversaries than allies, the kids begin by waging class warfare on each other (the rich girl calls the middle-class boy "Kmart"), but end by realizing they're better off as a team.

Screenwriters can't win. If the writers had the guts (and the jokes) to fashion a bittersweet comedy with a fully earned happy ending, "Unaccompanied Minors" probably wouldn't have been made. As is, it's a prefab slapstick-'n'-pathos stew that doesn't taste like anything. Director Paul Feig created the fine TV series "Freaks and Geeks" but can't do much with this material.

Glass receives an executive producer's credit, but we'll have to take "Unaccompanied Minors" as a down payment on the next "This American Life" story expanded for the movies.

MPAA rating: PG for mild rude humor and language. Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes. In general release.

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