Kid (A/K/A Christopher Reid), the star of House Party, would be a magnetic performer even if it weren't for his gravity-defying hair an eight-inch-high flattop that adorns his head like a funky fez. Beneath the 'do, there are eyes that stare out with sultry self-mockery and a mouth that curls down into a knowing smirk. Kid, who's one-half of the rap duo Kid 'N Play, has genuine star presence. He could be a cross between Tom Hanks and one of cartoonist Matt Groening's glaring humanoids, with a bit of Buckwheat thrown in.
Except that this is Buckwheat transfigured a guy who chooses to look clownish because he knows it gives him a secret advantage. Kid is at the kinetic center of House Party, the savviest and most aggressively entertaining teen movie to come along since Hairspray and the early days of John Hughes.
House Party recalls Hughes' Sixteen Candles and also Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Valley Girl, Animal House, and the '60s beach-party flicks. Made outside the industry, it nevertheless belongs to an exuberant tradition of synthetic Hollywood teen films. This one, though, has a spanking-new subject: the Middle American black kids who have grown up immersed in the rhythm and style of hip-hop. Raised in comfortable middle-class neighborhoods and plugged into the media from birth, they're perhaps the first generation of young blacks who are blessedly free of having to see themselves as outsiders.
That's what gives House Party its dizzying zest. The movie makes no great claims for itself, but on some level it's about the freedom these kids share. They're high on it, and it's not long before you're on their hyperkinetic wavelength.
Writer-director Reginald Hudlin (his brother, Warrington, produced) doesn't just update the old teen conventions; he gives them a quicker spin. In House Party, the hip-hop lingo whizzes by at an exhilarating clip, as intricate an alternative language as Hughes' up-from-Valley-Girl slang. The movie is slick and cartoonish but also extremely clever, and its unabashed conventionality is exactly what's fun about it.
The story centers on how Kid, who lives with his grouchy, widowed pop (Robin Harris), sneaks out of the house for a pump-up-the-jam party thrown by rival rapper Play (Christopher Martin). Kid comes to the party to rap and also to find a girl to go home with. As the evening progresses, there are romances, jealousies, a musical number or two, and the inevitable run-in with the local hoods. (They're played by members of the pop group Full Force, who appear to take their fashion tips from early-'80s Mr. T.) There are also encounters with a couple of hostile white cops a running gag with an edge. At first, the movie seems to reinforce certain male-dominated patterns in hip-hop culture. But the Hudlins aren't sly sexists; the female characters get their turn too.
The movie is hilariously frank about the more uninhibited aspects of black teen life. A slow dance becomes a mutual bump-and-grind, and the characters are constantly razzing each other about their personal grooming habits. At the, same time, the filmmakers leave you with a handful of messages: Don't drink, don't sleep around, and if you're going to have sex, use birth control. (For some reason, a five-minute conversation about condoms focuses exclusively on the question of pregnancy; AIDS never even comes up.)
Oh, well. It's easy to forgive the Hudlins their pointedly ''responsible'' stance. By now, that's part of the teen-flick tradition too. And when Kid and Play launch into their dueling rap number (the movie's surefire highlight), House Party revives what's best in that tradition: It turns rebellion into fun, and vice versa. Here, at last, is a shrewd and sassy pop entertainment about black life. It's not Spike Lee, but then, if this rock-the-house movie finds its audience, it could start a different sort of revolution a mainstream revolution. B+