By Joshua Grover-David Patterson | November 12, 2003

There are people who will always turn up their noses at independent films. They have preconceived notions about films that haven’t been run through the studio ringer. They perceive these films as too arty, filled with poor lighting, poor sound, poor acting, and a depressing storyline that’s going to cause people to walk away from the film with a bad taste in their collective mouths.
Of course, this isn’t always the case. But “Urban Playground” wouldn’t be the movie to convert these folks.
“Urban Playground” follows a single day in the life of Mitchell, who, as he tells everyone who asks him, is ten and a half. He lives with his mother (neither she nor he knows who his father is) in a run-down apartment. He sleeps on a mattress on the floor under a blanket that was already decrepit when he was five, and gets himself up in the morning, brushing his teeth with toothpaste that he has to scrape out of a tube he must first cut in half.
His mother, it seems, is a drug addict, or a drug dealer, or both, and the first task she assigns to him this particular morning is to keep a local junkie from coming into the apartment.
Subsequently, Mitchell misses his bus and is forced to walk to school. Standing right outside his school building, a man with a serious racism problem attempts to accost Mitchell. A local drug dealer accosts the accoster, and takes his wallet.
This is both good and bad, as the dealer now considers Mitchell in his debt, and subsequently takes him away from school and up to a local rooftop, where the dealer conducts his business.
Mitchell makes a successful drug run, which he follows up with a successful gun drop off.
It’s here where the plot and characters of the film start to fold in on one another, and I’m forced to stop discussing the narrative for fear of giving away the ending. Suffice to say that the gun Mitchell drops off eventually ends up in the hands of people who are better off staying away from firearms, and that Mitchell’s life is very much altered by the consequences of their actions.
What’s impressive about the film is it’s economy of character – everyone who shows up on the screen will eventually return and add a little twist to the proceedings. The junkie at Mitchell’s door in the morning later pops up to remove the serial number from the gun Mitchell delivers. The racist who accosts Mitchell in the street later encounters Mitchell again, though he doesn’t seem to recognize him.
Unfortunately, the rest of the film is a mess.
I mentioned before the perceived problems of independent film, and several of them are here in spades. The dialogue is frequently unintelligible, and the volume of the people on the screen varies so much from shot to shot that I was constantly adjusting the sound and rewinding the film to make sure I wasn’t missing anything important.
The film drags. There are shots in the film that go on and on and on without a cut, and it doesn’t appear to be a matter of director’s preference. Rather, it seems that the scene was shot one time and they used that take because it was the only one they had.
For that matter, there are several scenes that simply go on too long or don’t change from one sequence to the next. When we meet Mitchell’s mother, she’s hanging out with a friend of hers. In scene after scene, all the friend does is ask for drugs and say she isn’t going to do what Mitchell’s mother wants or needs her to do until she gets some. Then she gives in.
As for the acting, well, there’s good and bad. It must be said that Elliot does an impressive job as Mitchell. In particular, there’s an eerie sequence when a gun is held to Mitchell’s head. It’s hard to watch, and rightfully so, and I genuinely believed Mitchell was frightened at that moment.
The essential problem with this film is that it has an interesting idea behind it and an extraordinarily poor execution surrounding it. Even at 82 minutes, this film drags on and on, and even the sequences that work frequently don’t know when or how to end. Somewhere in here there’s an interesting short film, I think, about the way people randomly knock into each other and how a series of seemingly random run-ins can have such far-reaching consequences. But as the film stands now, no one is funny, or sympathetic, or interesting enough to follow for eighty-two minutes.

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