'The Hate U Give': Film Review | TIFF 2018

Impassioned and effective, if slightly overstuffed.

Amandla Stenberg plays a girl who witnesses a police shooting in George Tillman's adaptation of Angie Thomas's bestseller.

A vivid dive into the human cost of police shootings that never feels like a movie of the week, George Tillman, Jr.'s adaptation of Angie Thomas's novel The Hate U Give makes an unlikely girl the sole witness to an unarmed boy's death and watches her struggle to decide whether to speak up. Not the only current film to address this dilemma — god help us, the phenomenon continues to be so commonplace it demands several different kinds of stories in response — it is one solidly engineered to engage viewers across racial/economic/political spectrums. (And only occasionally suffers from that engineering.) Marking a career highlight for Tillman creatively, it's likely to be a commercial one as well.

Amandla Stenberg plays Starr Carter, who spends her life code-switching: Raised by parents all too aware of her rough neighborhood's threats, she has attended a white-bread private school all her life, and made a point of being less street than her classmates. (Using black slang makes them cool, she observes, but would peg her as being from the hood.) She loves this clean, safe place and feels she belongs; throw in an adoring, earnest boyfriend, Chris (K.J. Apa), and part of her wishes she never needed to go back to her other life. Which isn't to say she doesn't love her family, an almost impossibly perfect household despite the troubled past of her ex-con father Maverick (Russell Hornsby), who got together with mom Lisa (Regina Hall) as a teen and managed to make the relationship last.

Maverick is both a righteous believer in Black Panther principles and an uncompromising pragmatist when it comes to dealing with police. The film begins with him, many years ago, giving his children "the talk" about how to conduct themselves when — not if — they find themselves stopped by a cop. The movie springs from a tragedy in which she put that training into action, and a friend did not.

Starr goes to a sketchy party one night in her neighborhood and runs into Khalil (Algee Smith), a friend since she was a toddler. The two wind up in his car alone, and are stopped when he changes lanes without signaling. Unwilling to prostrate himself before the officer as Starr does, Khalil makes an innocent movement that is seen as a threat. He's shot immediately, leaving him dying in the street while cop and Starr alike are gripped by panic.

One of the film's more subtle points is showing us how well equipped the black men around Starr are to respond to this horror's aftershocks. Her father, understanding PTSD, watches her sleep and has a trash can ready when the nightmares make her vomit; her uncle Carlos (Common), a cop himself, shields her from the insensitivities of a post-shooting investigation and tries to make the ways of government sensible; and an estranged part of the family circle, the drug dealer King (Anthony Mackie), takes her for a ride and assures her he has been in her shoes.

But King has more than Starr's mental health on his mind. As the man for whom Khalil was "selling that stuff," he wants to make sure Starr doesn't tell police about his connection to the case. (The script, eager for us not to judge Khalil, tells us he only sold drugs to help his cancer-struck grandmother.) King is almost completely undeveloped as a character, but his menacing shadow will hover over the rest of the film.

Keeping Starr mostly ignorant of that threat, the film focuses on her worries over what would happen to her life at school if she went public about having seen the shooting. Having done so well at establishing a life there, will she now become just the wrong-side-of-the-tracks girl who saw her friend get killed?

It becomes clear that, while Thomas's book is wholly invested in this character's life — and a well-rounded performance by Stenberg makes her more than real — Starr's unlikely social situation is a way to place any kind of viewer in the shoes of the real-world bystander forced into activism by a police shooting: the mother who never asked to wear her dead child's face on a t-shirt at rallies; the man whose own minor sins come under media scrutiny when he tries to speak out about what police did to his friend; those who are having a hard enough time making a living, without having to devote months or years to the pursuit of justice.

The film follows many subplots, showing how this event affects the usual teen-movie stuff (prom, friendships) and pointing toward the bigger political world likely to consume Starr's life if she speaks out. Most of this is compelling, though the volume of narrative detail sometimes dilutes the urgency of a community's need to see a police killing prosecuted. By the third act, the movie's diligence about following up every harrowing encounter with some happy-family comic relief also seems counterproductive — especially when it dampens scenes showcasing a deep performance by Hornsby. (Performances are strong across the board, but Hornsby has the richest supporting role by far.)

The source novel may have been marketed as a Young Adult book, but nearly nothing here limits the film's appeal in that way. Only a slight overreliance on voiceover reminds us of the film's YA origins. Though critical viewers will often find it trying to play safe, being all things to all people, the movie does allow itself to get messy and unresolved toward the end, wrecking happy relationships and letting empowering moments dissolve into failure. That credible ugliness lingers longer than the sentimental, too optimistic ending this mainstream film requires. Viewers who've actually been in the protest trenches may long for a grittier take. But in sanitizing some aspects of this experience, The Hate U Give brings the world of protest and agitation a little closer to those whose privilege has made it relatively easy to ignore.

Production companies: State Street Pictures, Temple Hill
Distributor: Twentieth Century Fox
Cast: Amandla Stenberg, Regina Hall, Russell Hornsby, Algee Smith, Lamar Johnson, Issa Rae, K.J. Apa, Common, Anthony Mackie
Director: George Tillman, Jr.
Screenwriter: Audrey Wells
Producers: Marty Bowen, Wyck Godfrey, Robert Teitel, George Tillman, Jr.
Executive producers: Timothy M. Bourne, Angie Thomas, Isaac Klausner
Director of photography: Mihai Malaimare, Jr.
Production designer: William Arnold
Costume designer: Frank Fleming
Editors: Craig Hayes, Alex Blatt
Composer: Dustin O'Halloran
Casting director: Yesi Ramirez
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Gala Presentations)

PG-13, 132 minutes