Friday, April 26, 2002
'freshmen' Makes the Grade With Authentic View of College Life
Tom Huang's film surprises with its impressive depth and detail of characterizations.
By KEVIN THOMAS, Times Staff Writer

     Tom Huang's "freshmen" is far removed from the usual college movies, as amusing as they can sometimes be, and so authentic it's like eavesdropping on life.
     It was supposed to be a 50-minute graduate-school thesis film at Loyola Marymount University, but Huang got a green light from his faculty advisor by not showing him his entire script in order to have access to university equipment and facilities to complete, with an assist from friends, the 121-minute feature over the course of one year.
     Huang's ruse has paid off. With wit and detachment, Huang follows four freshmen, who meet in a history discussion group in their first quarter at Los Angeles University--read Loyola.
     Not surprisingly, the four have differing personalities and backgrounds; what is surprising is the impressive depth and detail of Huang's characterizations, his keen ear for dialogue and his ability to get his actors to seem to be living their roles. Much of the time it is easy to forget that "freshmen" is fictional and not a documentary.
     Tonisha (N.D. Brown) is an African American from Compton who cannot afford to drop her part-time supermarket cashier's job. Huang casts himself as San, a Chinese American whose brush with an affront during Rush Week causes him to question his cultural identity for the first time and realize that he knows next to nothing of his heritage.
     Kurt Kohler's Rick is a nice but insular kid from Baltimore who is unintentionally racially and ethnically insensitive. Margaret Scarborough's Judy is a pretty Kansan who becomes giddy at the prospect of sorority life.
     These likable young people become friends, seeing each other through various crises, one of them decidedly major. We see them evolve three-dimensionally: Tonisha, for example, can become understandably irritable under the heavy load she's carrying, wondering whether she has the stamina and resolve to fulfill her dream.
     Confusing San's quest for self-acceptance is that he finds himself dating both Judy's mature and lovely roommate (Wendy Speake) and a pretty Chinese American student (Mary Chen). Supported first by Rick and then the others, Judy, wholly unexpectedly, faces the greatest challenge.
     Variety's reviewer aptly remarked that "freshmen" is a solid calling card for Huang and his cast. Although Huang wrote terrific parts for his actors, including himself, they all exhibit the talent and focus to bring their characters fully alive. Wisely, Huang concentrated on his story and people rather than camera angles.
     "Freshmen" could have benefited from tighter editing and more stylish structuring, yet even though it runs too long, it is so involving that the length doesn't detract that much from its impressive impact.