★★★★½ - STUFF
- Garden Heights. Home to Mr Lewis' Barbershop, Mr Reuben's BBQ and 16-year-old Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg).
But while it might be her hood, it's not where she goes to school. Instead, along with her older half-brother and younger male sibling, she's driven by her mother to the "safer" Williamson School each weekday morning. That's where Starr "version two" excels at basketball, hangs with her Old Spice-smelling white boyfriend Chris (KJ Apa) and "doesn't give anyone a reason to call her ghetto".
But just when she's feeling adept at keeping her two worlds and personas separate, fate intervenes. Getting a lift home with close childhood friend Khalil Harris (Algee Smith), Starr witnesses a moment that will change her life forever.
After being pulled over for allegedly failing to signal a lane change, tensions between Khalil and the nervous young Freemont policeman quickly escalate. While the officer goes to check his drivers' licence, Khalil makes the mistake of moving his hands off the car. Confusing the hairbrush he goes to grab for a gun, the cop takes him down with three bullets. Panicked, he then handcuffs Starr, calls the incident in and watches as the young man bleeds out.
Attempting to recount the night's events at the police station, it quickly becomes clear to Starr that justice may not be served. Investigating officers seem more interested in Khalil's dabblings in illegal activities rather than whether his death was a routine traffic stop gone wrong as a crime. And while a grand jury is planned, there's only one Starr witness and she's constantly being reminded by others around her that "snitch rules" apply in Garden Heights.
While the more high-profile Black Panther and BlacKkKlansman have rightly featured as part of this year's Hollywood Awards season, it's a crying shame that this powerful and poignant adaptation of Angie Thomas' 2017 best-selling novel has struggled to even get a release here. This is an engrossing and emotional drama that deserves to be seen by both its target teen audience and older viewers.
Director George Tillman Jnr (The Longest Ride, This is Us) and screenwriter Audrey Wells (A Dog's Purpose) do a magnificent job of creating characters you care about, conflicts that feel real and outrage you can tangibly experience.
Compelling twists and turns keep you on the edge of your seat throughout the more-than-two-hour running time, while the story's tonal gear-changes are not only handled well, but breathtaking in their execution.
Of course it helps that the production boasts a terrific acting ensemble. Regina Hall (Girls Trip), Russell Hornsby (Creed II), Anthony Mackie (Detroit) and Common (John Wick 2) all deliver, while Kiwi actor Apa (Riverdale) is a scene-stealer as Starr's somewhat clueless boyfriend Chris.
However, the movie belongs to Stenberg (The Hunger Games, The Darkest Minds).
Like our own Thomasin Mackenzie in Leave No Trace, her portrayal as a young woman facing turmoil and crises has been shamefully overlooked by those handing out the gongs this summer.
- James Croot, STUFF