Imagine if back when you were 17, instead of playing CDs in your bedroom and dreaming about getting up the nerve to talk to a girl or guy, you played bass in a punk band that performed gigs in New York City. After your show, you hopped around the Lower East Side with a cute girl who knew all your favorite I-liked-'em-first bands, and who could get you into any club in town. You and she and your buddies partied until dawn with nary a care for the consequences, the law, or your parents.
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When war breaks out, the Nomura family is enjoying a happy middle-class life in 1940s L.A. All that changes when the internment order arrives, and soon Mom (Judi Ongg), Dad (Masatoshi Nakamura), older brother Lane (Leonardo Nam), and younger brother Lyle (Aaron Yoo) find themselves in a drafty barracks in the middle of a desert somewhere in the American west. While most everyone tries to adapt with dignity, the volatile Lyle, who has been robbed not only of his baseball scholarship but also his beloved jazz music, simmers with rage. He's even more outraged when he learns that Lane has volunteered to fight with the 442nd division, the famous all Japanese-American unit that went on to glory in European fighting. Why would Lane want to fight for the same army that has machine guns trained on him day and night in the camp?
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Hal Hefner (Reece Thompson) really can't help but be humiliated; he stutters like it was going out of style. How would this lead him to his high school debate team? Well, the debate team happens to be led by silver-tongued Ginny (Anna Kendrick), an all-business upperclassman who thinks she can mold Hal into a thorough debater. As you might not expect, Ginny's efforts go to spit and she leaves the school for the higher-ranking debate team. But Hal is relentless, determined to both kick the habit and impress Ginny. Ben (Nicholas D'Agosto), a mythical debater who quit debating to work at a city laundry, seems to be his only hope. Ben's got one idea: teaching Hal to debate by singing his argument along to "The Battle of the Republic" and showing everyone up at the state competition.
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The film's beginning will not allay your fears. Kale (LaBeouf) and his dad (Matt Craven) are fishing. Knee-deep in a lake and surrounded by mountains, they share a particularly cheesy father-son moment. We see that he's not just Kale's father, he is his friend. The relationship is so clichéd and the setting so cloyingly idyllic, that one wants to run for the (admittedly beautiful-looking) hills. However, before you go to switch off the Hallmark channel, Caruso offs the dad in a car accident just brutal enough to forgive what came before and dissolve some preconceptions. It's a pretty good move (although not quite Janet Leigh in the Bates Motel shower) and sets us up for a film that effectively handles and plays its audience.
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