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FILM REVIEW
"freshmen" A Stoddard Temple production. Produced, directed, written by Tom Huang. Camera (color, 16mm), Brian Harding; edi- tors, Huang, Monina Verano; art director, Andrea Pocaccini; set designers, Greg Rutledge, Jean Jacobson; assistant directors, Barrett Tripp, Charles Howard; casting, Tina Gee, Amy Lundin, Mae Libanao. Reviewed at AMC Kabuki, San Francisco, Feb. 21, 2000. (In S.F. Asian-American Film Festival) Running time: 121 MIN. With: N.D. Brown, Tom. Huang, Kurt Kohler, Margaret Scarborough, Wendy Speake, Mary Chen, Richard Guiton, Jake White, Sonya Leslie, Patrick Gorman.

By DENNIS HARVEY

There's nothing remotely original about "freshmen," but this somewhat formulaic comedy-drama about four college newbies has a lot of charm and sincerity going for it. Microbudget 16mm feature (with a $35,000 bottom line) lacks the gloss or distinguishing edginess to warrant much exposure beyond fest circuit -- possible TV sales aside -- but it's a solid calling card for debuting director Tom Huang and his fresh-faced, very likable young cast.
Things look pretty routine at the outset, as scheduling conflicts force the lead quartet to form their own unsupervised discussion group for an American History 101 course on fictive L.A. University (actually Loyola Marymount) campus. Judy (Margaret Scarborough) is a blonde, bubbly semi-airhead; Rick (Kurt Kohler) is insecure and socially awkward; San (Huang) must confront the Chinese-American identity he's always distanced himself from; and Tonisha (N.D. Brown), who commutes in from Compton, is stressed out trying to balance school against working to support her cash- strapped mom and little brother.

They're a mismatched lot, with the brighter bulbs, by far, being the minority students; the pressure each endures from demanding parents and unsympathetic profs is often broadly drawn. But while script seems too pat for a while -- and never springs any real surprises - characters grow some depths worth rooting for as they pull together to face various formative challenges.
With no spare time for fun, Tonisha begins feeling crushed by her heavy responsibilities. Judy's grades suffer as she falls into a party-circuit hole, at one inebriated point being date-raped by a frat boy, to smitten, too-shy Greek rushee Rick's horror. Lucky San finds himself torn between two terrific potential girlfriends -- Judy's level-headed roomie Dana (Wendy Speake) and ethnically proud Grace (Mary Chen)- yet his indecision blows both chances.
What starts out like a run-of-mill teenpic minus the usual crass slapstick and T&A becomes very ingratiating, given its deft situational humor and the non-condescending, sweet-spirited stance taken toward unapologetically decent, naive principal characters.
While most adult roles are penned (and played) a bit simplistically, younger thesps all lend their parts a pleasing restraint that rings true. Weak comic tag involving two minor figures should be ditched however.
Tech aspects are modest but well-handled excepting one badly underlit albeit brief nighttime dance sequence.