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Byline: David Kronke TV Critic

Violence and sex - between students and teachers - are both too-frequent tragedies in high schools these days, disquieting social ills that provoke much hand-wringing in lieu of unearthing actual solutions, yet Hollywood treats them in wildly divergent fashion. An episode of ``Buffy, the Vampire Slayer'' was struck from the WB's schedule for a time last year because of fear of copycat behavior - odd, since the violence in the episode concerned a giant serpent terrorizing the school's halls, something even the most inventive anarchists are unlikely to replicate. Meanwhile, sexual relationships between students and teachers are fodder for two upcoming midseason replacement sitcoms - ''M.Y.O.B.'' and ''Brutally Normal.''

And both issues are exploited this evening as prurient entertainments with little interest in mining the sociological underpinnings of the real- life tragedies.

First up is the usually reliable PBS series ``Frontline'' with a titillatingly titled episode, ''The Killer at Thurston High,'' about Oregon teen murderer Kip Kinkel. There's not a lot of material here that wasn't in reports that soon followed the shocking murders, though what's added is admittedly chilling - the recording of Kip's distraught admission of guilt, police videotape of the crime scene. Outside of emphasizing Kip's fondness for the romantically violent, hyper-charged film version of ``Romeo and Juliet'' starring Leonardo DiCaprio, however, this report fails to provide much context or elucidation for concerned parents wondering if there's a time bomb ticking in their own home.

Which is the fear correspondent Peter J. Boyer immediately raises, grimly intoning, ''Some of us are raising killers in our own homes.'' At points in this recounting, Boyer sits in an SUV in a rainstorm, looking fatuously reflective as his deliberate, monotonous voice-over narration, ponderously slow to the point of somnolence, metes out the facts.

In interviews with Kinkel family friends, as well as Kip's sister Kristin, who was away at college when the tragedy occurred and puts a curious, heartbreakingly perky spin on her recollection of events, we're shown the inexorable steps toward calamity. Kip's father, Bill, a respected teacher, watches, bewildered and exasperated, as his underachieving son grows ever more moody; he makes the fatal mistake of trying to assuage his teen's angst by putting guns in his hands.

Kip had a fair number of friends; nonetheless, his diary is filled with the usual sort of urgent self-doubt that most teen-agers must endure. So what turned him from standard-issue disaffected teen to national headline?

It turns out, Boyer anti-climactically admits despite all his concerned in-truck emoting, that Kinkel is an anomaly after all: Despite the high drama employed in re-creating the heinous crime, it boils down to the fact that he was tormented by voices in his head. It recalls Chris Rock's pointed take on extracting the societal reasons for school shootings: ''Whatever happened to 'crazy'?'' As the subsequent massacre at Columbine proved, there are individuals so unhinged that no amount of sensitivity training or good parenting or school policing can stop them. These virulent, gun-toting basket cases are a disastrous side effect of the freedom our country proudly embraces, but if we succumb to paralyzing fear and ineffectually alter our lives to avoid perceived dangers, we've lost our freedom anyway.

TONIGHT ALSO FINDS the USA Network airing a docudrama on Mary Kay Letourneau, the educator who violated a student's civil rights by championing the cause of statutory rape. Oddly enough, the filmmakers actually put a little care and thought into their production, though not enough, of course. The full title and ad campaign - ''The Mary Kay Letourneau Story: All-American Girl,'' with two figures on a school crossing traffic sign, the taller, skirted one cozying up to the other - suggests an only-in-America satire along the lines of the HBO classic, ''The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom.''

Screenwriter Julie Hebert and director Lloyd Kramer, however, have opted for a more serious, although ultimately unsatisfying approach. They want to address the issue seriously - specifically, if the victim doesn't feel victimized, was a crime committed? However, since Letourneau apparently participated in some fashion with the production, their take seems a smidgen suspect. Certainly, there's no quicker way to make your subject seem sympathetic than to throw her against a prison backdrop filled with rapists and child abusers, which is how this film opens.

Penelope Ann Miller plays Letourneau, who was reared in a stringently conservative family and, the film suggests, willingly submitted to sibling incest in her teens. Hebert and Kramer are vague about the particulars of her marriage - she and hubby Steve (Greg Spottiswood, who looks almost as young as the kid she seduces) were forced to marry when she got pregnant; it was a loveless marriage that somehow nonetheless produced four children. Money seems to have been an issue in there somewhere but is addressed only muddily; such are the vagaries when dealing with a real-life story that includes people who are still around and able to sue over their depictions.

Letourneau encounters Vili Fualaau (Omar Anguinano in a cagily insightful performance), a troubled student with, allegedly, the soul of an artist, while he's in sixth grade. He flirts with her and brags to pals that he'll seduce her; their families become friendly, and they become EXTREMELY friendly. Again, the film cheats in Letourneau's favor - Anguiano looks far older than 13, the age at which Vili and Mary Kay began sleeping together. Anguiano, in fact, looks legal; couple this with Miller's own youthful demeanor (she's playing a 35-year-old), and audiences are invited to ask: So what's the big deal?

Well, it doesn't matter how old the guy looked, he was still 13 - and therefore still lacking in the social graces that Letourneau thrust upon him, whether he was willing or not. He may not feel the effects of what has been done to him until he's a fully grown man.

The filmmakers create a crafty portrait of Mary Kay - part romantic ditz, part legitimately psychologically imbalanced young woman - and this plays guilefully well to Miller's abilities, though she's not anyone's idea of an accomplished actress (``The Shadow,'' anyone?). She essays her subject as something of a giggly, goofy and insecure drama queen who enjoys all the attention, if for all the wrong reasons.

Though ``Letourneau'' doesn't really provide much insight into the case, it likewise doesn't waste one's time or aggressively insult one's intelligence. Leave that to the gratuitous round-table discussion following the movie. The lurid story's principles, including Letourneau, via satellite from prison, will be featured in a live (on the East Coast, at least) forum. No word on whether the host will be Jerry Springer or Sally Jessy Raphael.


--The show: ``The Mary Kay Letourneau Story: All-American Girl.''

--What: Docudrama about the elementary school teacher who fell for a student.

--The stars: Penelope Ann Miller, Omar Anguiano, Mercedes Ruehl.

--Where: USA Network.

--When: 8 tonight.

--Our rating: Two and one-half stars

--The show: ``Frontline: The Killer at Thurston High.''

--What: Documentary about Kip Kinkel.

--Where: KCET.

--When: 8 tonight.

--Our rating: Two and one-half stars


photo, box

Photo: Penelope Ann Miller and Omar Anguiano play a student and teacher whose affair shocked the country in ``The Mary Kay Letourneau Story.''

Box: THE FACTS (see text)
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Title Annotation:L.A. Life
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Television Program Review
Date:Jan 18, 2000

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