"Walkout," which airs tonight on HBO, tells the story of the East L.A. Chicano student walkouts of 1968, staged to protest inequalities in the school system. Directed by local lad Edward James Olmos (who also plays school board member Julian Nava) and filmed largely where it happened, it does better than most such re-creations at transmitting the flavor of a time and the excitement of living through it.
This may be in part because executive producer Moctesuma Esparza ("Selena," "The Milagro Beanfield War") did in fact live through it; indeed, he helped organize the walkouts, for which he was indicted as part of the "L.A. 13" for "conspiracy to commit a misdemeanor," which made the misdemeanor a felony. (He's played here by Olmos' son Bodie Olmos.)
The filmmakers have elected, however, to tell the story mainly through the experience of bright high-school senior Paula Crisostomo (Alexa Vega, from the "Spy Kids" movies) and her consciousness-raising relationship with teacher Sal Castro (Michael Pena, "The Shield"). (The script -- by Marcus DeLeon, Ernie Contreras and Timothy J. Sexton from a story by Victor Villasenor -- captures the rhetorical skills of a good teacher.) Vega's urgent performance, as much as anything, is what makes the film work, though it is full of good work, most notably from Efren Ramirez (Pedro in "Napoleon Dynamite") as one of Paula's less-involved friends.
There isn't much in the way of plot or of character relationship. An almost-romance between Paula and a fellow movement worker plays as contrived, especially in its "surprise" resolution. Her home life is characterized by a standard generational estrangement between conservative father and activist daughter, wrapped up in an easy moment of sentimental reconciliation -- even if it were true, it still comes off as a bit of a cliche. And there is a slight lack of historical context as well: Students were walking out of colleges and high schools all over the world that explosive year, and one movement empowered another.
None of this matters much in the end, for the film has real energy and a feeling for people and places. The scenes at the Mexican-American Youth Leadership Conference in Malibu, where Paula meets her mentors, have exactly the right note of youthful discovery, and the demonstrations, which are where many such films fall down, especially when made on a television budget -- too few people standing too far apart -- have a convincing size, force and momentum.
For all its minor faults, "Walkout" communicates the thrill of being swept up in something bigger, and a young person's first inklings of belonging to a point in history, a history that might be changed. Such early convictions often fade, but not -- to judge by the moving, brief interviews that run along with the closing credits -- with many of the people portrayed here.
When: 8:30 to 10:30 p.m. tonight.
Ratings: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)