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A young offender tries to get his family and his life back together in Malik Vitthal’s gritty and ultimately uplifting urban drama. The winner of Sundance’s audience award in the low-budget NEXT section, Vitthal’s first feature clearly has the wherewithal for specialized release by a distributor prepared to promote rather than minimize the film’s rough edges.
Recently released 21-year-old Bambi (John Boyega) ends up back on the streets of LA’s notorious Watts district after a two-year prison stint for assault, but unlike many young ex-cons, he has a little kid to care for while girlfriend Samaara (Keke Palmer) is doing her own time in county jail. He’s quickly reintroduced to the reality of his former thug life when he discovers that his 4-year-old son Day (alternately played by twins Justin and Ethan Coach) has been left in the care of his alcoholic mother, Tanya (Kellita Smith), at the home of her drug-dealing brother-in-law Shrimp (Glenn Plummer).
Bambi wants to focus on writing his novel about characters experiencing the hard-knock type of life he’s all too familiar with (following up on a short story he’s published in McSweeney’s), but Shrimp relentlessly pressures him to run a delivery of Oxy across state lines to Portland because his son Gideon (De’Aundre Bonds) is on the run from local gangbangers after accidentally killing a child in a shootout at a party. Bambi struggles to establish some modicum of normalcy for Day, bolstered by the example of his seemingly straitlaced younger brother Wayne (Rotimi Akinosho), who’s recently been awarded a partial scholarship to Howard University. But Shrimp refuses to rescind his demand for Bambi to take the drug deal, leaving him with no alternative but to move out of Shrimp’s house and into his rundown car, along with Day.
PHOTOS: THR’s Sundance Instagram Portraits
Unable to find a job, or even get an ID so that he can look for a job until he pays his child-support debt, Bambi wrestles with multiple layers of inflexible bureaucracy while getting harassed by the local beat cops and trying to conceal Day from nosy social service investigators. Matters come to a head when Wayne agrees to run the drugs for Shrimp, forcing Bambi to definitively determine who’s on his side so that he can sever ties with anyone threatening his ability to care for his son.
Vitthal and co-writer Ismet Prcic work-shopped their Imperial Dreams script in various filmmaker labs before going into production on location in Watts, and managed to maintain a fairly refreshing take on the challenges of inner-city life. British actor Boyega seems to have an innate feel for the setting, taking on the role of Bambi with genuine empathy for the character’s situation. His rapport with the young actors playing Bambi’s son is especially poignant, particularly when nearly their entire existence is relegated to the back and front seats of a broken-down sedan curbed on a dead-end street in the Watts housing projects.
Supporting castmembers are more variable, although Plummer musters ample menace as the volatile drug runner Shrimp. Behind the camera, Vitthal realizes the virtues of keeping things simple, minimizing the complexity of shots and editing to keep the focus on the characters, which constitute the strongest component of the film. Vitthal and cinematographer Monika Lenczewska achieve some striking nighttime sequences that effectively hint at danger lurking around every corner in the menacing Watts projects, which form the ominous background to the principle action.
Much as Fruitvale Station, another Sundance debut last year, prompted a reevaluation of urban dramas re-cast as modestly budgeted, character-driven morality plays, Vitthal’s film has the distinct fortuity to realign opinions on how artistic talent can best be nurtured and celebrated in a climate of often diminished opportunities.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival, NEXT
Production company: Super Crispy Entertainment
Cast: John Boyega, Rotimi Akinosho, Glenn Plummer, Keke Palmer, De’Aundre Bonds, Kellita Smith
Director: Malik Vitthal
Screenwriter: Malik Vitthal, Ismet Prcic
Producers: Jonathan Schwartz, Andrea Sperling, Katherine Fairfax Wright
Executive Producers: Zygi Wilf, Audrey Wilf
Director of photography: Monika Lenczewska
Production designer: Cecil Gentry
Costume designer: Chasia
Music: Flying Lotus
Editor: Suzanne Spangler
No rating, 90 minutes
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