'Five Star': Film Review

Courtesy of SIFF
Unsensational gang film rings true.

Keith Miller pairs actors with amateurs in this tale of youth entering gang life.

NEW YORK – A street-smart film about fatherhood and the lack thereof in a community where gangs provide most of the male role models, Keith Miller's Five Star makes its nonactors look like trained thesps and (in a good way) vice versa. Following up on his lauded debut, Welcome to Pine Hill, Miller again blends fiction and reality to fine effect. If the result is less sensationalistic than mainstream auds might expect in a film about drug dealers, it remains sure to build critical support for the emerging auteur.

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Real-life member of the Bloods gang James "Primo" Grant plays a Bloods general named Primo here, with the film's title referring to his rank. "I'm a Five Star, they don't question me," he tells the scrawny but self-assured John (John Diaz) when explaining how he can make a home for the uninitiated youngster in his organization. John's father, Melvin, we learn, was the gang leader who gave Primo his start, and with Melvin recently slain by a stray bullet, it's time to return the favor.

This conversation, in a park near a Brooklyn housing project, plays not like the Faustian invitation it is but as documentary observation, only slightly more dramatic than sequences to come that find Primo in his modest apartment's living room, watching his toddlers play and fretting about household repairs with their mother. Primo is an attentive dad and clearly regrets being absent for family milestones in the past because he was "locked the f--- up." He takes a paternal tone with John as well, trying to steer him toward the least dangerous illegal activities available.

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John has doubts about Primo's motives, and isn't sure he believes the party line about how his father died. But Diaz shows how easy it can be to accept the inevitability of gang involvement, especially when it enables one's social life: John is trying to date a sweet girl named Jasmin (Jasmin Burgos) and he needs something to back up the confidence he projects with her. The gun he buys himself, as shiny as a toy, is a sadly inevitable confidence-builder.

While John's trying to make more of himself, we see Primo in contexts that don't jibe with his elevated gang status. The slab-like, intimidating black man is a bouncer and hired muscle for a white bar owner, existing on the margins of a privileged world. These scenes suggest a genre-friendly direction the film might take, but ultimately they're just context making the already compelling Primo a more sympathetic figure — just in time for the foreshadowed friction between him and his protege. Miller's take on this confrontation is fresh and surprisingly credible, perfectly in sync with themes the film has subtly established in almost every scene.

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Production company: Up the Street Films
Cast: James "Primo" Grant, John Diaz, Jasmin Burgos, Tamara Robinson, Wanda Colon, Larry Bogad, Tony Yayo
Director-Screenwriter-Editor: Keith Miller
Producers: Daryl Freimark, Keith Miller, Luisa Conlon
Executive producer: Russell Miller
Directors of photography: Ed David, Alex Mallis
Production designers: Kelley Van Dilla, Jennifer Correa
Music: Michael Rosen

No rating, 82 minutes