As a piece of filmmaking, the strengths and flaws of Art Party are very much intertwined. In depicting Smith and cohorts on their real-life trip to 2013's Scarborough Conference, yet also taking comedic detours to portray thinly fictionalised education secretary Michael ‘Grove’, and having a sort of folk Greek chorus of guitar music by The Fucks and Flame Proof Moth, the movie departs from the usual monoform of vox-pop documentaries to become something more playful. Think of it as a straight record of a plea for change by way of an episode of The Comic Strip Presents...
What could have been shrill is actually reasonably charming and engaging. Moth’s bemusement and wry commentary makes for a pleasant screen presence. Gove, while literally caricatured, is taken on fair terms – instead of being a malicious Tory snot, he’s presented as a joyless, misguided pragmatist whose theory that “the fundamental building blocks of society are reading, writing and mathematics” is simply lacking vision.
After an hour of cross-cutting the separate realms of document and fiction, there’s a nice stylistic touch as ‘Grove’ enters the conference of arty freaks and the edits reach a dizzyingly fearful critical mass. But when the movie makes this choice to collide the fictional Grove and real-life protestors of Gove, it corners Art Party into revealing how it’s hedged its bets – sidestepping easy punchlines and dully naïve reportage, yes, but also never building the full comic energy of great satire or the detail and punch necessary to make a fiery polemic.
Smith’s film has philosophical problems, too. For all the talk about how art teaches people to look at the world differently, and to not shutting the door on children’s creativity, the actual portrayal of art in the film reduces its full spectrum to frolicking bits of crafty textile and painted footprints.
Finally the film is too thin to justify the price of a cinema ticket, and while it plays warmly in a room of Smith’s supporters, a discussion piece about children’s education might best belong in schools rather than movie houses and galleries. The signs read ‘Come to the Art Party’ but only the party aspect of art is on show, and the students being lobbied for don’t seem to have been invited.