Local cinemas this week

A young teen finds her voice in an uneven Black Lives Matter drama, Julia Roberts struggles to help her drug addicted son, and Hugh Jackman stars in the smartest political movie in years.

The Hate U Give

The title comes from a Tupac Shakur’s 20-year-old T.H.U.G.L.I.F.E. mantra, which, in the wake of numerous US police shootings with black victims, still feels depressingly relevant. In George Tillman’s Jr’s adaption of a best-selling YA novel, a sweet young black teen Khalil (Algee Smith), explains to his childhood best friend and unrequited love-interest Starr (Amandla Stenberg) what the acronym means. “The hate you give little infants fucks everyone”, he says. A bit later that night he’s shot by a jittery white patrolman (Drew Sharkey) who mistook his hairbrush for a gun. He dies in Starr’s arms.

For a story that is full of drama and conflict, nothing quite matches that powerful scene – it’s poignant, shocking and unbelievably sad. If it doesn’t make you angry – nothing will, but then in a movie which veers depressingly close to didacticism, much of that passion will be later dissipated by sheer narrative exhaustion. There are just too many characters and story-lines, many of them existing simply to tick-off a bullet point list of racial justice themes. It trades on its realism, yet takes a fatal nose-dive when a climatic Black Lives Matter rally ends with a confrontation which is both too neat and too silly to believe. And as for suspension of belief, what are we to make of our heroine’s family? Starr and her two brothers live in a crime-ridden low-income district, her saintly dad (Russell Hornsby) runs a down-at-heel neighbourhood convenience store while loving mum (Regina Hall) is a nurse. Yet all three kids go to a swanky mostly white private school across town. No mention of scholarships, and while dad’s history as an ex-gang-member is referenced (all in the past, now he’s as straight as an arrow) and various subplots do delve into the way the brutal drug business works in neighbourhoods like hers (her friend Khalil was being pulled into it for economic reasons), there’s no suggestion her family is anything but squeaky clean. Let’s just leave their circumstances hanging, and say that in terms of realism, depth and credibility, The Wire this is not… 

That’s not to discount the film’s strongpoints. Stenberg (above) is superb – Starr is an appealing heroine and the theme of a 16-year-old finding strength in the face of tragedy will resonant with many teens. There’s refreshing unwillingness to caricature or demonise anyone too – even the thinly-drawn white characters are treated fairly. Much has been made of the fact that she’s black and female. But more than that, it’s just fantastic that today in a mainstream Hollywood big-budget feature – a teen heroine can exist at all and not be (a) glued to her iPhone in every scene (b) a brilliant marksman who lives in the post-apocalypse ruins of our shabby/greedy world, or (c) a mutant. Take a bow Starr. You may be too good to be true, but I liked you… M from Jan 31. Local cinemas include Palace Norton St and Dendy Newtown.  ★★★1/2

Ben is Back

Drug addiction films are nothing if not predictable. As soon as we’re introduced to a user and the “will-he-or-won’t-he” question is raised, we know that sooner or later, he will… Lucas Hedges is the teenage opioid addict here, an actor fresh from being the surly orphan of Manchester by the Sea, the vulnerable gay-conversion therapy victim of Boy Erased and troubled closeted boyfriend of Lady Bird. Surely writer/director dad Peter Hedges could have given him a break and in his own film, allowed his son to crack a smile. Maybe make a comedy instead?

No such luck, in this grimmest of melodramas we first meet Ben standing in the driveway of his family home on Christmas Eve. He’s gone AWOL from rehab, and his mother Holly (Julia Roberts) is at first is delighted to see him. He’s 77 days clean, he swears, with no intention of using over Christmas – he just wants to be home with his loved ones, what could go wrong? But Mom knows the score – in the next very telling scene, she clears out the family’s bathroom med cabinet, makes him promise regular urine tests and never, ever, be out of her sight. Younger sis Ivy (Kathryn Newton) is appalled he’s back to disrupt their lives once again, and step-father (Courtney B Vance) is equally distrustful. He’s already mortgaged the house to pay for Ben’s treatments, and there have been too many betrayals. Sure enough, before long the furtive transgressions begin, there’s a house break-in and the beloved family dog is stolen. Then a hellish mother and son trip through their home suburb in the middle of the night, where Holly sees at grim first hand her son’s other life and the ravishes the nation’s drug crisis is inflicting on American communities right before her comfortable middle class eyes.

While Hedges performance is a bit one-dimensional (he’s an addict, he just needs to be annoying and untrustworthy) Roberts gives her role as the redemptive Mom her all. Yes she’s good, she always is, but somehow in this downbeat role her big star status is a distraction. The plot necessitate all the action be crammed into one day and night, which stretches credibility too. Late in the piece, when the film changes gear from a kitchen-sink drama to full-on thriller, there’s a pill smuggling scene which is just ridiculous – c’mon Ben, you’re just driving across town, not crossing an international border. And hey, it’s Christmas Eve, even drug dealers have families to go home to. 

But yet there’s this: As in all these addict dramas (and there have been several lately), the issues dealt with are important. Back in Australia, we’re being told that lives will be saved if only we make the business model “safer” for drug users and their sellers. In the US, the birthplace and engine room of modern consumer capitalism, they’re way ahead of us  – both for opioids and increasingly everyone’s all-time favourite party drug, cannabis. They’re not only strictly tested for purity, they’re part of a billion-dollar retail industry which produces tax revenue for the state. Naturally enough, the products that are killing Ben are already in Holly’s (and most other families) homes. M from Jan 31. Local cinemas include Palace Norton St, Central, Broadway, Burwood and Dendy Newtown.  ★★★1/2

Also opening this week

You’ll  hear some negative things said about The Front Runner, but don’t believe them. If you want to understand the toxic political currents swirling around today, get along to the best adult film of the summer season. Our review here. from Jan 31 Local cinemas include Palace Norton St, Central Broadway and Dendy Newtown. ★★★★1/2

Reviews – Russell Edwards