Students get it together in 'Night'

Times Staff Writer

An African American teenager named Gerica McCrary made national news in 2002 when she took it upon herself to integrate her school's twin proms -- one "black," one "white" -- in the small town of Butler, Ga. (More than 30 years earlier, the prom event had been turned into a private affair, funded by student subscription and not school money, to avoid integration.) With the location moved to Louisiana, the names changed and a couple of romances written in, this eye-opening bit of recent history has become the basis of "For One Night," an inconsistent but overall engaging TV movie that airs tonight on Lifetime.

It falls somewhere between a typical "Lifetime movie" -- a professional woman in love and/or danger and/or at war with the status quo -- and an "Afterschool Special," with the juvenile elements the better realized. Aisha Tyler (currently of "Ghost Whisperer") represents the adult element as a frustrated New Orleans-based reporter who finds the prom story on a visit to her backwater hometown, where she also confronts the ghosts of her own past. Jason Lewis, in what I can't help but think of as the Matthew McConaughey role, plays her secret old flame, now the high school vice-principal.

Raven-Symone, the child star and pop singer sometimes known simply as Raven (as in her Disney Channel series, "That's So Raven"), plays the Gerica character, here named Brianna. It's an endearing portrait of a teenage overachiever -- bubbly, sociable, comfortable bursting into the principal's office, in the running for valedictorian, with a habit of quoting great people of history, as if she went to bed each night with a copy of "Bartlett's." (But she's shy, of course, when it comes to boys, and Sam Jones III, from "Smallville," is the boy she's shy about.) Raven-Symone can be a little intense at times, even cartoony, but it fits her character right enough.

Directed by Ernest R. Dickerson (who before getting busy in series television shot several Spike Lee films) and written by Denitria Harris-Lawrence ("Kevin Hill," "Any Day Now"), the film is a bit of a bumpy ride, strangely uneven from scene to scene, quietly persuasive one minute and awkwardly contrived the next. (As is more often than not the cinematic case, the mechanics of the newspaper business seem cribbed from "Superman.") At times it's unusually sensitive to nuance and the gray areas of often self-contradictory human behavior, and the downside of "tradition." (The separate proms are supported by black and white alike, because it's what they're used to.)

But the harder the filmmakers work at creating drama, at whipping up crises to overcome with waves of good feeling, the less convincing their movie becomes. It capitulates to the obvious, speeches get preachy, villains gnash their teeth. When "For One Night" simply observes the ordinary interactions of its younger protagonists, however, imagining and re-creating a small-town world that's all they know, it's really rather exciting.

Mills Allison and Daina Gozan are noticeably good as Brianna's best friends, but the whole cast -- which includes several Louisiana locals -- is quite fine, young and old.


'For One Night'

Where: Lifetime

When: 9 to 11 tonight

Ratings: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children).

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