HBO's ''Walkout" is based on the 1968 protests by thousands of Mexican-American high school students in East Los Angeles. Tired of discrimination in the school system, the teens organized a multi-school walkout. Over the course of a week, they called stark attention to an institution that was denying them college opportunities and making their Mexican-American identity into a liability. Indeed, they were publicly paddled by teachers if they spoke a word of Spanish inside school walls.
''Walkout," which premieres tonight at 8, makes it nicely clear that sometimes it takes young people to bring about change. Kids still have the bristling idealism that adulthood and experience can dull, and they have the energy to act on their beliefs. Out of naivete, or simply recklessness, the Mexican-American teens in East LA were willing to take risks that their parents, more burdened with responsibility and more accustomed to settling for less, tended to avoid.
Directed by Edward James Olmos, ''Walkout" delivers its important civil rights lesson through the story of straight-A student Paula Crisostomo (Alexa Vega). Paula refuses to accept the status quo, even though it hasn't harmed her own promise. Against the wishes of her traditionalist father, Panfilo (Yancey Arias), she sneaks out of the house at nights to attend activist meetings. Soft-spoken and polite, she comes out of her shell, and soon she is urging her friends to stage a protest, yelling, ''Our schools are the back of the bus."
The kids are mentored by a teacher, Sal Castro (Michael Peña), who wants them to fight to make sure Mexican-Americans are written into US history books. He also tries to jolt them into not settling for second or third best, into going to college and cultivating ambition. At the same time, he works to temper their impatience, instructing them to organize and plan before taking action. Surrounded by all the civil disobedience of the 1960s, the students want to jump right in unprepared.
The movie is well-intentioned and valuable as an earnest reminder of a lesser-known battle that was waged during America's decade of change. But as a personal drama, it's superficial and forgettable, buried in the filmmakers' larger points about discrimination and Mexican-American self-esteem. The characters are shallow, there only to serve the movie's educative motives.
Paula and her family are little more than props as they go through the motions of generational and anti-authoritarian conflict. It's hard to care about the domestic tension between Paula and Panfilo, because they are such generic characters. When she angrily tells him, ''I just don't want to be like you," it doesn't have the devastating power it should when a daughter rejects her father. Paula and her activist friends are equally shallow. It's almost comical to see them putting together the protests, as if all it takes to rock the world is a few late-night chats and a phone chain.
As a descriptive document, ''Walkout" will do, but as a snapshot of self-realization and empowerment, it rings hollow.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at email@example.com.