'Blue Story': Film Review

Blue Story - Publicity Still - H 2020
Paramount Pictures
Rough-hewn but bursting with urgency.

Two high-schoolers find their friendship tested when they become embroiled in gang violence in British hip-hop artist Rapman's feature directorial debut.

Although it presumably didn't involve much financial risk, it was a gutsy move for Paramount Pictures to pick up the low-budget British teen gang drama Blue Story for domestic theatrical distribution in the current era in which studios concentrate on would-be franchises. So it's a shame that the current pandemic has forced the debut feature from British hip-hop artist/filmmaker Rapman (real name Andrew Onwubolu) to forgo its planned March theatrical release and instead premiere on digital platforms, where it may have a more difficult time attracting the zeitgeisty buzz it deserves.

Rapman first made a real name for himself with his 2018 YouTube musical drama series Shiro's Story, the huge success of which led to him being signed by Jay-Z's Roc Nation label to develop several projects including his own record label. This film, adapted from an earlier web series of the same name created by Rapman and partially based on his own youthful experiences, received strong reviews and enjoyed box office success upon its release in its native country. It also became the focus of controversy as a result of a violent incident involving a large group of teenagers armed with machetes at a Birmingham theater last November.

Bookended by disturbing news footage detailing the rise of knife attacks in England, Blue Story hardly proves unfamiliar in its themes. The pic owes obvious debts to such predecessors as 1991's Boyz n the Hood, 1992's Juice and the 2006 British film Kidulthood and its sequels, although this effort will obviously benefit by reaching a new generation of younger audiences.

The melodramatic storyline revolves around two central characters, best friends Timmy (Stephen Odubola, making an auspicious screen debut), shy and bookish, and the volatile Marco (Micheal Ward). The pair attend the same high school but live in different south London neighborhoods whose respective gangs the Ghetto Boys and Peckham Boys are fierce rivals. Marco's older brother Switcher (Eric Kofi-Abrefa) runs one of the gangs, and when one of Timmy's friends beats up Marco during an altercation it sets off a violent chain of events that pit the two boys against each other.

Meanwhile, Timmy strikes up a romance with Leah (Karla-Simone Spence), a sweet-hearted classmate with whom he bonds over such things as their shared love of Game of Thrones. But that relationship also becomes bound for tragedy.

The film's most original and bracingly audacious element is the frequent onscreen presence of its writer/director, who periodically pops up as an urban Greek chorus delivering rap commentary about the characters and situations. Besides the entertainment value it provides, the recurring narration also proves useful, since American viewers in particular may have trouble deciphering good portions of the vernacular-rich dialogue delivered in thick British/Caribbean accents.

The film becomes most effective in its depiction of the ill-fated love story between Timmy and Leah that provides the pic with its sweetest, low-key moments. Both young actors are highly appealing, with Odubola proving particularly impressive in his character's eventual transformation as Timmy becomes hardened and bitter as a result of his experiences (at about the halfway mark, the story skips forward three years, becoming significantly darker). Although he doesn't have as much of an arc, Ward is equally charismatic and compelling as the edgier, high-strung Marco.

While the rough-hewn filmmaking occasionally reveals Rapman's lack of experience working with a larger cinematic canvas, Blue Story boasts an immediacy and energy that perfectly suit the material.

Production companies: BBC Films, DJ Films, Joi Productions, Paramount Pictures, WrushMedia
Distributor: Paramount
Cast: Stephen Odubola, Micheal Ward, Kara-Simone Spence, Rohan Nedd, Kadeem Ramsay, Khali Best, Junior Afolabi Salokun, Eric Kofi Abrefa, Andre Dwayne, Rapman
Director-screenwriter: Rapman
Producers: Damian Jones, Joy Gharoro-Akpojotor
Executive producers: Rose Garnett, Paul Grindey, Charles Moore, Rapman, Eva Yates
Director of photography: Simon Stolland
Production designer: Virginia Goodwin
Editor: Mdhamiri a Nkemi
Composer: Jonathon Dearing
Costume design: Ruka Johnson
Casting: Isabella Odoffin

Rated R, 91 minutes