Back in 1994, this film arrived with a bit of a buzz from the awards it won at Sundance. It was being marketed in the wake of gangsta films like Boyz n the Hood and Menace II Society (because that’s what distributors do with films is cash in on what’s popular), but, reviews noted, there was something different about this drama. True, our central character, nicknamed Fresh (played by Sean Nelson), is a 12-year old runner for drug dealers around town – particularly Esteban (played by Giancarlo Esposito), a heroin dealer who takes a nearly paternal interest in Fresh’s development because he can see his maturity and intelligence – but even so, this film has very different aims from the juiced up melodrama of the so-called ‘hood films of the early 90’s.
The film was the brainchild of writer-director Boaz Yakin, who, after working on mainstream Hollywood films (The Rookie and The Punisher, for example) for years, decided that he wasn’t doing what he wanted to in the industry. Instead of fighting in the system to scrape forward toward a compromised version of his vision, he moved to Paris, vowing to return when he had something to day and was able to exercise a reasonable amount of control over how it got made. And though maybe he wasn’t able to continue that principle later in his career (he’s also credited with writing Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, which makes me sad), he got it right here for sure. The film constantly feels emotionally dead-on and has a great ear for street dialogue, both at the adult level and of the kids in the film.
Fresh is a smart kid alright, but he’s helped immeasurably by his alcoholic father (played by Samuel L. Jackson) who Fresh mostly finds hustling chess in Washington Square Park. He’s the anchor for Fresh, teaching him to think strategically, plan ahead, to watch and listen rather than leap into action. So when he has to make his own way because his aunt can’t handle raising 11 kids in her small apartment, when a friend is murdered in front of his eyes, when his sister’s drug habit starts to endanger her life, Fresh uses his dad’s lessons to try to extricate himself from the life he’s found himself stuck in.
In addition to Yakin’s terrific script, he’s gotten terrific performances from almost all the central kids in the plot, from Jackson, and especially from Esposito, who combines the right touch of human tenderness with his violent ruthlessness. And then there’s Sean Nelson as Fresh himself – a kid who seems wise beyond his years often from the simple act of keeping quiet, listening and letting other people (meaning the adults around him) show their hand. I’m not sure how much is the writing and how much is Nelson’s work, but the role is great.
The film is intelligent, tense, gritty, and sporadically violent (but not excessively or graphically so). It’s shot by cinematographer Adam Holender, who’s something of an NYC grit specialist, having shot Midnight Cowboy, Panic in Needle Park, Smoke, and Street Smart, to name a few. He knows the streets of the city from before the Guiliani whitewash of New York that makes it feel so different today compared to the era of this film. And at pretty much every level, it feels like the love and care Yakin took to make a film that meant something to him is shared by cast and crew alike, because all the participants turn in A-level work here.
If you feel like you’ve seen enough “hood” films but haven’t seen this one, make room for one more, because it’s not like any of the others. If you’ve seen it, but like me coming back to this, it’s been 20 years or so, it’s most assuredly worth revisiting – it hold up beautifully. A great, small, personal film of the type that made indie cinema such an exciting idea once upon a time.
- Patrick Brown