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Originally published Friday, September 5, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Movie review

"The Little Red Truck": An inadequate portrait of an admirable effort

"The Little Red Truck" is an unrevealing documentary that focuses on the Missoula Children's Theatre program for producing plays in six days throughout hundreds of American communities.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 2 stars

"The Little Red Truck," a documentary directed by Rob Whitehair. 98 minutes. Rated PG for some thematic elements. East Valley, Meridian.

"The Little Red Truck" is about the Missoula Children's Theatre's remarkably extensive outreach program for kids with little or no experience in putting on a play.

MCT serves tens of thousands of children in hundreds of communities across the United States (and a dozen or so other countries). The company, with its trademark red trucks carrying ready-made costumes and props, turns up in different locales and produces such shows as "The Little Mermaid" and "The Frog Prince," casting local kids in all the roles.

The production process, from auditions to full performances, takes place in only six days. Then the directors and trucks are off to the next town.

While that pace is impressive, the majority of kids in the program have never performed on stage, let alone rehearsed under accelerated conditions. It's no wonder most of the film's scenes of harried MCT directors at work with their casts look like exercises in chaos and futility.

It's also no wonder imminent opening nights for multiple shows (the film covers five different productions under way from Americus, Ga., to Rankin Inlet in Nunavut, Canada) often threaten to crumble into disaster. Yet, as any parent of a theater kid knows, somehow performances always come together when they need to.

Director Rob Whitehair captures the day-by-day organized madness of it all, sitting in on pre-audition exercises, intense rehearsals and last-minute fine-tuning. While all of that is fun to watch and Whitehair's interviews with MCT's roaming director teams are touching and insightful, somehow none of it is as fun and insightful and touching as it should be.

The beautiful point of MCT's program is giving individual kids (especially in underserved communities) a "moment" in their lives, an unparalleled and perhaps formative accomplishment, that can't quite be found in any of their other endeavors. Yet Whitehair doesn't show that legacy except at some remove, largely through the various directors' comments.

We do hear from a young adolescent boy who describes giving up the temptations of gang life, and another boy who self-consciously strains to explain how acting feels to him. But a real filmmaker would be finding a way to push inward on the lives of several kids who undergo, or underwent, the MCT experience. How does or did the whole thing affect them?

"The Little Red Truck" is more interested in exploring MCT's process than in its real-world results. That's fine, but let's not call this a documentary. It's public relations.

Tom Keogh:

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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