Director: Boaz Yakin. Cast: Sean Nelson, Giancarlo Esposito, Samuel L. Jackson, N'Bushe Wright, Luis Lantigua, Ron Brice, Jean LaMarre, Cheryl Freeman, Jose Zuniga. Screenplay: Boaz Yakin.

Boaz Yakin's Fresh is a film that almost defies you not to be moved. There is considerable power in its story of a 12-year-old boy who has already found steady employment as a drug-runner for kingpins all around his New York City neighborhood. There is also, however, in the film's reliance on symbolism, its frequently cartoonish acting, and his constant lamentations for innocence lost, a significant amount of mawkishness. Fresh takes itself so seriously, and most reviewers have given it such extravagant praise, that any criticism of Yakin's film risks drawing charges of insensitivity or inattention. With all of the above problems, however, and without a fully-formed perspective on its protagonist, Fresh remains a picture that is more powerful and affecting in concept than in actual execution.

Sean Nelson stars as Fresh (né Michael), who, along with his older sister Nicki (N'Bushe Wright), is one of 11 adopted foster children cared for in the home of an urban saint named Aunt Frances (Cheryl Freeman). Early in the picture, Nicki packs her things to move out, much to Fresh's and Frances' chagrin; their chagrin would increase if they realized, as Fresh eventually does, that Nicki has taken up residence with a convenience store owner who keeps her loyal with his constant supply of snort and smack. Fresh—whose mother we presume is either dead or permanently departed, and whose father (Samuel L. Jackson) makes just enough money playing chess in Central Park for the upkeep on his trailer home—has no other natural family left besides Nicki, and he thus decides to devise a plan that will either restore her to Frances' safe haven or relocate the both of them to a safer, friendlier locale.

That's all easier said than done, however, because Fresh has certain professional commitments to stay put. A trusted runner, broker, and retriever of drug deliveries for local thug Esteban (Giancarlo Esposito), Fresh lives his whole life in obedience to men with bodyguards and firearms always in reach. Esteban uses Fresh because his youth and his quiet demeanor make him unsuspicious to most neighborhood police and to rival drug-runners, though before Fresh concludes, its protagonist's services are recruited by other heavies in the district.

Yakin outlines for us a scenario of undeniable sadness; how can we help but feel distressed that such a young kid could already be so tightly involved in traffic of this kind? Fresh's misfortune, however, is that Yakin depends on our basic, immediate empathy to propel us through a number of scenes that, when examined more carefully, complicate our notion of Fresh's role in all of this and undermine our desire to identify with him so fully, or at least to view him solely as an aggrieved innocent.

For, to orchestrate his way out of the projects, Fresh devises a complicated network of lies and quick changes that will align all of the various drug rings and dealers against one another, essentially inducing such a total civil war that Fresh will either escape unnoticed or, in the extreme circumstance, be the only person left standing. Yakin plunges so deeply and energetically into the logistics of Fresh's plan, however, that little consideration is given to what it means for a 12-year-old to have cooked all this up. Yes, Fresh is exceedingly intelligent, but isn't there more going on for him to accomplish such a feat? Doesn't he need to be able to think like a kingpin, to absorb and follow the thought process of a criminal, to work out all the details? Keep in mind that much more is demanded of Fresh than cooking up a strategy and following it to the letter; multiple occasions materialize where Fresh must depend on reflex and quick thinking to save his own neck—yet he still adheres flawlessly to what any of his drug-running bosses would think, decide, or do.

So, we must ask, how much different, or more pointedly, how much better is Fresh, really, than the men he seeks to escape? Is he truly an innocent or can we not afford to see him that way anymore; has he been utterly run through by an insidious way of life, converted entirely to a way of life and a state of mind that were unfairly inflicted but govern him all the same? These are tough questions, as is the dilemma around Fresh's willingness to cost other men their lives so he and his sister can run free. Yakin's rationale (or Fresh's, depending on how you look at it) seems to be that, considering their likely futures as providers and corrupters of youth after youth, hoods like Esteban need not be considered or preserved as would a regular human being. Yet, at the same time, we are asked to look past Fresh's own behaviors and conduct and view him solely as a fellow human, a soul that can be saved. How is that fair?

The film is uninterested in pursuing its themes to the fullest, most conflicted extremes, but then again, most of its young, unknown cast seems ill-prepared for such a probing portrait of urban violence and psychic warfare. Nelson's apple cheeks and sad eyes recommend him physically for the part, but he has trouble reading as dialogue as though it were spontaneous speech. His emotions are frequently too stylized to be very believable, removing Fresh even further from the point where we could more fully empathize with his circumstances. Esposito is charismatic and clever as Esteban, and is lucky to be given a fuller, more feasible role than what Samuel L. Jackson is handed in playing Fresh's absentee dad. Compounding Jackson's difficulties is Yakin's obsession with the chess metaphor, which, as in Oliver Parker's 1995 Othello, thuds down in several scenes as an obvious metaphor for the machinations of the narrative. Finally, it seems churlish to harangue against such young performers, but Luis Lantigua as Fresh's cocky, flamboyant compadre is so shrill and overly mannered that we are almost thankful (rather than appropriately saddened) when a circumstance befalls him that forces his disappearance.

Fresh wants to tell the story of a hero among villains, a born leader who must first escape the demands of pharaonic oppressors. That story would be an interesting one to follow, but whatever Yakin believes, he has not told that story here. Fresh deserves credit for its convincing portrait of the inner-city tightrope, but as far as psychological acuity, the area where Yakin seems to think his film works best, he actually stands in most need of maturity and thought. In fairness, Yakin does deliver a galvanizing final shot that implies he may well be more aware of the paradoxes built into his movie than anything in the preceding two hours would suggest; if anything, though, such a hint only titillates us further to wonder what more Yakin could have said about this sad, moorless boy. Given such a unique and uniquely affecting premise, I was disappointed and surprised to see Fresh play out as tritely and superficially as it ultimately does. I guess that goes to show you can't judge a movie by its title. Grade: C

Other Awards:
Sundance Film Festival: Filmmakers Trophy (tie with Clerks); Special Jury Award (Nelson)
Independent Spirit Awards: Best Debut Performance (Nelson)

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