In the last days of their summer vacation, some animated high school students have assembled backstage at a WTTW studio. The teenagers sit in their hippest back-to-school outfits around long folding tables occupied by the station’s fund-raising telephones. They’re waiting to audition for slots on “Screened by Teens,” a new segment to be featured on WTTW’s nationally distributed show Sneak Previews–returning to the air after a one-year hiatus. A press release quotes cohost Jeffrey Lyons: “Sneak Previews concentrates on the issue at hand–is the movie under discussion worth the viewers’ time and money?” On a recent Saturday afternoon Lyons added, “Most adults stay home on Saturday night. As long as the majority of the movie audience on a Saturday night is teenagers, then that’s where the money goes.” And to help teenage consumers decide where to spend their leisure dollars, who better to guide their taste than other teens?

Producer Jamie Ceaser is lugging around a clunky Polaroid camera, taking snapshots of each kid. Leaning over each target, she apologizes for the device’s erratic habits. She never knows when it will work. She presses the button and eventually the flash goes off and a sticky snapshot is spit out. In random batches of four, the teens are seated and told to talk amongst themselves about Running on Empty, a movie they’ve been assigned to see beforehand. “There’s no right answer, because there is none. Just give your opinions. We just want to see if it’s going to work. I have no idea,” Ceaser announces.

Ceaser and the director, Dick Carter, take notes as the opinions spill out.

“I liked it. I cried.”

“Oh right. On what planet is this a good movie about families?”

“OK! Let’s see River Phoenix with his shirt off.”

“Judd Hirsch looked pained, like he had a stomach problem. I never knew what he was feeling. All I know was that he wasn’t feeling good.”

Not everyone saw that film, so one panel talks about Sleeping With the Enemy.

“Don’t you think he loved her?”

“No, he was obsessed with her.”

“Obsession doesn’t need a reason.”

“But this guy had some stupid reason.”

“If you call beating the shit out of somebody a reason.”

“Well then define it as obsessive love.”

“It really shows how ‘romantic’ that kind of a relationship is.”

A few weeks later, about a dozen teens who have made the first cut show up at Ed Debevic’s restaurant, the set for the “Screened by Teens” pilot. It’s a school day. “I’d be in English right now,” admits Colleen Noonan from Morgan Park Academy. She says she told her teacher, “I’m going to try out for a TV show on Channel 11. He said, ‘Can’t you come up with something better than that?'”

Today Ceaser is again carrying her Polaroid, along with a biography of I.F. Stone for some reason. Dick Carter sits at his director’s console in the editing truck parked outside the restaurant. Over his radio headset he tells a crew member to rotate a cup so its Coke logo is out of sight. A waiter wearing a maroon Shriner’s fez passes the table. The premise is: four teenagers come out of the theater and stop at Ed’s for a milk shake. Sitting together in a booth, they talk about the movie for exactly two and a half minutes.

Opinions pour out:

“There are some teenagers out there who are just shallow enough for this movie to appeal to…”

“Why do we want to cater to people who have no brains, who like guys with names like ‘Brad’?”

“I thought Billy Crystal was kind of childish. It was a little too techniquey for me. Is that a word?”

This test run is deemed a success. Two weeks later, the eight reviewers making the final cut return to Ed’s. During the taping, one of the teen critics in the booth improvises, picking up a menu as if to order. Out in the truck, Carter exclaims, “A menu shtick! Great menuing, kid.” Via headsets, Carter unleashes a rash of commands to the two camera operators who are shooting the booth from opposite sides. In good-natured exasperation he harangues the crew by remote, jabbing his fingers at the screens of the truck’s monitors. Half the time his shouts are directed at the editor sitting next to him, who is supposed to keep up with his on-the-run switching from one angle to the next.

Although Carter is a seasoned pro at complex multicamera live broadcasts, he can’t keep up with four wired, fast-talking, wisecracking teenagers. At one point he starts pounding all over his editor’s buttons. Teenage breakfast diets of sugar doughnuts get the blame. The movie gets re-reviewed.

Ceaser touts the show’s on-air talent. “They have a freshness about them from a certain lack of experience. So they can’t relate to the mid-life crisis of Billy Crystal’s character in City Slickers–and frankly neither can I.” She continues, “They have a slight cynicism I really like. Even though they accept things, they have this edge. These are real bright kids. They’re not going to be easy on films. I really enjoy hanging out with them. They really crack me up. But I’m glad I’m not 16 anymore.”

“Screened by Teens,” debuting this weekend, will inevitably be compared to the teen movie panel in the Chicago Tribune. “Let me tell you–there isn’t an original idea on the face of the earth,” says Ceaser. She even called the Trib for a list of their reviewers when she began soliciting candidates.

The Tribune recently published a letter to the editor complaining that its teen critics trivialize and compromise serious film coverage. This charge elicits only a bemused rebuttal from their editor, Randy Curwen: “Our teen panel shouldn’t be taken that seriously, just as most movies shouldn’t.”

Curwen’s duty is to keep from “turning our kids into Tribune clones,” and to translate “teen slang into journalese,” he says. “We don’t want them to write like miniature Dave Kehrs and Gene Siskels.” Neither of whom uses words like “studmuffin,” it seems. Is that one word or two? “You’re on your own on that one,” Curwen answers. But he did let it run in one review after determining that the expression was suitable for a family newspaper.

Julie Tsai is one of Curwen’s retiring critics who will turn up on Ceaser’s show. She enjoyed her year at the Tribune, noting, “We were allowed a little more leeway because we’re kids. Adults put more restraints in their writing.” The experience may affect her homework. “In English class now I write a little more seriously. Since I’m going after grades, I don’t have to worry about being entertaining, as long as I don’t put my teacher to sleep.”

Kenya Kimball, also appearing on “Screened by Teens,” has a little on-camera experience. When news crews from CNN and Channel Seven came to her school, “I was picked twice because I could articulate well.” Now attending the Chicago Academy for the Arts, she adds, “I love debating. I’m getting into political debates all the time. Sometimes I get into big arguments over movies with my mom. For instance, I absolutely couldn’t stand School Daze. And she loved it.”

Jennifer Reed resists stereotypes about any teen perspective, despite being perceived in a stereotyped fashion herself. She hangs out in Hinsdale with a set tagged as “the people who wear black,” she says, even though “only two of us really do.” Reed says her movie tastes diverge from the teen mainstream. “I like the more bizarre ones, like David Lynch’s and the European ones.

“I’m reviewing movies all the time for my family–at home, in restaurants, anywhere,” Reed says. However, watching middle-aged guys review movies on TV is no fun. “This could be my dad up there and I don’t want to hear him all the time, although I do, of course.” Reed says that when Backdraft was shot two houses away, she got to meet director Ron Howard. “He was real normal, kind of like my dad. I didn’t expect that at all–movie people are actually real people.” A senior at the Chicago Academy for the Arts, she is also taking Film Tech I at Columbia College.

Ira Murfin, only 15, is another reviewer who will appear on “Screened by Teens.” Last year he tried out, unsuccessfully, for one of the Tribune slots. This fall he’s taking a class that’s already covered John Ford, Frank Capra, and John Huston. It ends with Martin Scorsese, his favorite director. Murfin already has plans to become an actor, writer, and director. He wants to go to film school at NYU.

“When I look at what’s in the theaters, a lot of stuff I don’t even have to bother to see, like Suburban Commando,” he says. To date, his only insider experience was his role as an obnoxious teenager jogging past Kathleen Turner–and barking at her–in the opening scenes of V.I. Warshawski.

Who can say where a year on the job will take these kids. The Tribune asked its retiring crop of high school movie reviewers to “tell what it was like to play critic for a year.” Chicu Reddy wrote, “I had my first brush with greatness at a critic’s preview when Roger Ebert stepped on my foot walking through the aisle ahead of me.” In his column, Rene Carlos said he liked getting “my face in the paper,” but on the down side: “By far the most annoying question is ‘Are you a boy or a girl?'” On the plus side, “movie companies send me cool stuff.”

Perhaps the most insight came from Tribune teen Vincent Schleitwiler, from the Illinois Math and Science Academy in Aurora. After watching a couple of movies a week for a year, he challenges would-be reviewers to “see how long it takes before you realize that all you’re doing is seeing the same movie over and over again, and that it really isn’t gaining anything by repetition.” His grim conclusion: “It just pleases me to prove to myself that (a) movies are bad, and (b) reviewing them is useless.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bill Stamets.