Contrary to expectation, experience and preference, the rap music-driven, low-low-budget “Off the Hook” is an engrossing first feature from writer/director/co-producer Adam Watstein. A number of sports/drugs/violence-ghetto/’hood films have been released in the last several years, most of them critical and commercial splashes, although in retrospect the only one that does not seem betrayingly slick and glib was another debut effort, Boaz Yakin’s “Fresh.”
Some aspects of Watstein’s film are admittedly heavy-handed but can be chalked up to inexperience and financial exigency. For example, the jarring switch to Muzak for select tender moments; or the belabored cutting between one loudly profane crack addict mother and another, soft-spoken supportive one; or the opening-sequence contrast between one young man as patient kids’ baseball coach and his rap partner dealing drugs or street-fighting, and the overdone shots of lowering sky over ominous El tracks through grated windows.
The film’s crude power, however, derives from this same inexperience and simplicity. Done in essentially five shoots at a South Bronx housing project, with limited crew and a few, first-time actors, this true story captures the raw desperation, gratuitous bloodshed (without being bloody), and physical meanness of the inner city, where dreams of decency, family, success and possibly escape (to a house in Wantagh, Long Island) do indeed exist but are hard-pressed.
Happily, such dreams are here neither trivialized nor sentimentalized: traumatic death is sudden and realistically simple, and though bullets are balanced by birth, an end title tells of the family’s separation, and there is no feel-good guarantee of sales and success for the projected new three-man rap group.
In some cases playing their real-life selves, in short cinéma vérité-like scenes, the cast conveys the texture and idiom of the ghetto and its lives. Indeed, the street slang is at times realistically unintelligible; and one co-star had to be replaced when he wound up in jail, while a last-second bit player, and subsequently his brother, too, was recruited in a nearby delicatessen.
In this South Bronx milieu, it “seems like everybody’s aggravated.” If there were no counter-balance, the stridency and despair of this life would be unbearable, even softened as it invariably is on celluloid, which cannot, for example, introduce the unmistakable smell of such areas. But some balance there is, in the well-conceived humor of rapper neighbors Seanny Cash and Phanatic, in the tenderness of Walter and Narine, in Lorenzo’s belated struggle to walk away from the street, and in youth director Tony Young. The latter, “Tone,” serves as surrogate father in this often fatherless world, and while he cannot promise the success of a “blow-up,” or hit record, he does insist that one take responsibility for one’s own fate, that thoughtful style is essential, and that one have the self-respect to “conceive . . . believe . . . achieve.”
The actors wear what are presumably their own clothes and, performing on home turf, speak the language of that turf and not that of some prepared outside script. Intentionally or not, the surprisingly few bright colors, as for instance an orange tank top, serve to focus the eye in the midst of darker baggy jeans, bubble jackets, drab hallways. Nevertheless, even the film’s final colors of summer do not necessarily presage a brighter future. There may be hope, and possibility, but it is a delicate feathery growth, and given this environment there is no easy guarantee that it will take root and flower.
In part because of their very lack of professional experience (and its mannerisms), Watstein’s actors show the vulnerability, bewilderment and, at the same time, assertiveness of real people. Walter Velasquez (playing himself in this his own story), Jamal Mackey as troubled, searching Lorenzo, and LVee Anduze, chilling in the role of the latter’s angry, addicted mother, are particular standouts, but, really, all those associated with this indie should have good reason for hope. “Off the Hook” is a most promising start, and audiences will be moved as well as rewarded by it.