Review: ‘Clean’ (2022), starring Adrien Brody

February 27, 2022

by Carla Hay

Adrien Brody in “Clean” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Clean” (2022)

Directed by Paul Solet

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the dramatic film “Clean” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans, Asians and Latinos) representing the working-class, middle-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: A man with a shady past tries to be an upstanding person, and he finds himself lured back into a criminal lifestyle to save a teenage girl he has befriended.

Culture Audience: “Clean” will appeal mainly to people who are fans of star Adrien Brody and to anyone who doesn’t mind watching a monotonous crime drama that’s plagued with too many predictable clichés, some of which are borderline racially offensive.

Adrien Brody in “Clean” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Clean” is the title of this dreadful crime drama, but it’s not how to describe this movie’s messy and clunky story that’s a weird mix of low-quality and pretentious. It’s a misguided Adrien Brody vanity project that wants to have a lot of social commentary, but in fact says and does nothing that’s innovative or meaningful. And to top it all off, “Clean” is a very boring movie, where the actors just go through the motions, and everything is directed in a lackluster and generic way.

Brody not only stars in “Clean,” but he also co-wrote the movie’s screenplay (with director Paul Solet) and composed the movie’s musical score. Brody and Solet are two of the producers of “Clean,” which means they sunk money into this embarrassing dud of a movie. There’s a tone-deafness to how “Clean” seems to want to make an important statement about urban decay, but then the movie wallows in the same old tired stereotypes of hollow and forgettable gangsters getting into power struggle fights.

“Clean” is also racially condescending in how it depicts African Americans who live in financially deprived urban areas as being in need of saving by white people, with the movie presenting the “chief savior” as a white man. But to try and make the movie look “edgy,” this “white savior” has a shady past and is a supposedly reformed criminal who’s trying to get his life back on track when he becomes a vigilante. This movie is so on-the-nose cringeworthy that the name of this anti-hero who wants to clean up the neighborhood is named Clean, the character portrayed by Brody. No one ever says if Clean is this character’s first or last name.

In the production notes for “Clean,” Brody makes this statement: “I grew up in New York City. From a young age I was struck by the impact of poverty, drugs and violence afflicting those around me. Although the city has changed, I am still troubled by the prevalence of these problems today that plague our outer boroughs, our upstate rural communities and small towns, as well as many other parts of our country.”

Brody’s statement continues, “As an artist, my work has been shaped by this awareness. I long to tell stories that represent those who are striving to overcome the world’s brutality. ‘Clean’ came about as a tribute to the fearlessness of those, who, in spite of pain, loss and regret, fight to hold on to their humanity and transcend the obstacles they face.”

Apparently, the “Clean” filmmakers’ idea of a “tribute” means doing a dull movie that basically just shows gang violence and the chief villain being a white racist gang leader, who’s headed for a showdown with the movie’s anti-hero, who’s trying to be a vigilante. That’s essentially what “Clean” is about, with a lot of filler showing a brooding Clean attempting to be a father figure to an African American teenage girl and then inserting himself into the violence or causing the violence in formulaic fight scenes. It’s all so lazy and trite.

You know you’re in for a horrendous slog from the movie’s opening scene, where Clean gives a monologue in voiceover as he wanders through the depressing-looking streets of his town in whatever vehicle he happens to be driving. (The movie takes place in an unnamed U.S. city. “Clean” was actually filmed in upstate New York.) Here’s what Clean says in this self-pitying rant: “I’m still looking for answers. I don’t know what the answers are anymore. I just know there’s too much out there. A sea of filth. An endless onslaught of ugliness.”

Clean than goes on to ramble about “sheep shit clogging up our minds, clogging the drains, poisoning our water, turning us to shit. Where does it all go? I’ve got blood on my hands. I’m stained. I’m dirty. No matter how hard I try, I can’t wash away the past.” Get used to more of this tripe, because the movie is full of it.

The movie soon shows that Clean is a recovering drug addict. He goes to support group meetings that include his sponsor Travis (played by Mykelti Williamson), who describes himself as a “pill addict.” Travis also happens to be Clean’s barber and the closest person whom Clean (who’s a loner) can consider to be a friend/confidant. You know where this movie is going as soon as Clean says in one of his voiceover monologues: “A rush of violence is better than dope.”

Clean works in sanitation as a garbage collector, but he makes some money on the side selling items at a pawn shop. An early scene in the movie shows him going into a pawn shop to sell a somewhat rare Electrolux vacuum cleaner, which is in good working condition. There’s really no purpose to these brief pawn-shop scenes except to show that the movie has rapper/actor/filmmaker RZA (of Wu-Tang Clan fame) in a cameo role, as Kurtis, the pawn shop’s owner or manager.

In Clean’s spare time, he paints over graffiti in the neighborhood, so he can look like a model citizen. He also looks out for an African American student named Dianda (played by Chandler DuPont, also known as Chandler Ari DuPont), who’s about 14 or 15 years old. An early scene in the shows Clean driving by Dianda’s house, when he sees her sitting on the porch in the snowy cold. Dianda tells Clean that she accidentally left her keys inside and no one is home. Clean offers her a fish sandwich to eat, and her treats her to a meal at a diner.

In a racially condescending movie filled with negative stereotypes of African Americans, it should come as no surprise that “Clean” has made Dianda a girl who’s “at-risk” (as in “at risk of going into a life of crime”) because she lives in a single-parent, working-class household with no father figure. Her guardian is her single grandmother Ethel (played by Michelle Wilson), because Dianda’s parents died in a car accident. Ethel and Dianda live in a crime-ridden area with run-down houses, because a racially insulting movie like “Clean” doesn’t want to show any African Americans in significant speaking roles unless they represent poverty, crime or drugs.

Even though Clean is financially struggling, the idea that he has to bring food to Dianda is the movie’s not-so-subtle way of showing that Clean must think that Dianda isn’t getting properly fed on a regular basis. He brings her food or takes her out for meals, as if she’s some kind of charity case. Ethel tells Clean, “We don’t need anyone to save us,” and he replies, “I’m just trying to save myself,” but he still tries to be the family’s “white savior” anyway.

It’s not as simple as Clean just wanting to be a “nice guy.” He’s haunted by the death of his own biracial/African American daughter Rheya (played in flashback scenes by Victory Brinker), who died when she was about 5 or 6 years old. The movie shows Clean having dreams about Rheya, where he wakes up distressed because he knows why she’s dead. There’s some selfish motivation for Clean’s interest in Dianda: He’s using Dianda as some kind of therapeutic way to ease his guilt over Rheya’s death.

The movie eventually reveals why Rheya died. Why she died is exactly what you think, considering that Clean keeps talking about his criminal past in his self-indulgent monologues. Predictably, since the movie only cares about Clean’s thoughts and feelings, there’s no real importance given to Rheya’s mother or other family members who might have been affected by the tragic death of this child.

One of the more unrealistic aspects of “Clean” is how the movie—which rolls around in a lot of muck about gangster violence and people being “street smart”—doesn’t show anyone being concerned that Clean (a man in his 40s) wants to hang out so much with a teenage girl who’s not related to him. The movie never mentions how long Clean has known Dianda. It’s all very creepy. But if anyone raised those red flags, it would ruin the filmmakers’ narrative of Clean being the “hero” and “savior” of the story.

The negative stereotypes about African Americans continue. There are some African American gangsters who cross paths with Dianda. And because she’s an “at-risk” young person, the movie makes it look like she could be recruited for the gang’s crimes. It should come as no surprise that at some point in the movie, Dianda ends up in a gangster house of drug activity, and she’s about to be raped. But guess who comes to the rescue, just in the nick of time? (It’s not spoiler information because it’s in the movie’s trailer.)

At another point in the movie, Clean takes on a white crime lord named Michael (played by Glen Fleshler), who’s a drug smuggler. Michael owns a business in town called Kossuth Fish Market, which is really a front for his drug trade. Michael and his henchmen smuggle drugs in fish that go through the market.

Michael’s only child is a son named Mikey (played by Richie Merritt), who’s in his late teens or early 20s. Michael is grooming his son to be a gangster and to eventually take over the drug smuggling business. Viewers first see Mikey when he’s gotten out of prison for an unnamed crime. Michael and some of his thugs are waiting outside in a car to give Mikey a ride home, since Mikey still lives with his parents.

Instead of having a happy family reunion, Michael is furious because when Mikey exits the prison gates, Mikey is greeted by two African American friends, who are involved in a local gang. Mikey and these two pals seem to have a close relationship. And that doesn’t sit well with Michael, who’s a hardcore racist.

In case it isn’t clear that Michael is a racist, he uses the “n” word to describe black people. Not surprisingly, Mikey catches hell from Michael just because Mikey has friends who aren’t white. It bothers Michael more that his son has friends of another race than the fact these these friends are involved in criminal activities too.

Later in the movie, Michael and his goons give a vicious beatdown to some Chinese middlemen who are Michael’s connections in smuggling heroin into the fish market. The reason for this assault is that these middlemen (who import heroin from Asia) are suspected of stealing five bags of heroin that have gone missing.

These accused cohorts also operate a business called Ho Bros. Seafood, as a front for their drug dealing. Not everyone makes it out alive during this assault, which happens in broad daylight in front of Kossuth Fish Market, which is on a street lined with other businesses. It’s as if the “Clean” filmmakers think that the audience wouldn’t notice how dumb it is to commit this crime where there could be plenty of witnesses.

For reasons shown in the movie (but won’t be revealed in this review), the worlds of Clean, the African American gang and the white gang all collide. And you know what that means: mindless shootouts and fight scenes, with Clean being an army of one against his enemies. And don’t think that Dianda and her grandmother Ethel remain unscathed, because they get dragged into this mess. Viewers of “Clean” will feel like they got dragged into a horrific cinematic mess if they watch this junkpile movie until the very idiotic end.

IFC Films released “Clean” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on January 28, 2022.

Review: ‘A Shot Through the Wall,’ starring Kenny Leu, Ciara Renée, Tzi Ma, Fiona Fu, Dan Lauria, Clifton Davis and Lynn Chen

February 18, 2022

by Carla Hay

Kenny Leu in “A Shot Through the Wall” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“A Shot Through the Wall”

Directed by Aimee Long

Some language in Mandarin with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the dramatic film “A Shot Through the Wall” features a racially diverse cast (Asian and white, with some African Americans and Latinos) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A Chinese American police officer accidentally shoots and kills an unarmed and innocent black man through an apartment building wall, and he becomes embroiled in a controversy over whether or not he should be convicted of manslaughter.

Culture Audience: “A Shot Through the Wall” will appeal mainly to people who are interested in suspenseful dramas that address real-life, hard-hitting issues about the American criminal justice system.

Ciara Renée and Kenny Leu in “A Shot Through the Wall” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

Gripping and well-acted, the drama “A Shot Through the Wall” brings a somewhat flawed but mostly realistic look at how the American criminal justice system deals with a police officer who shoots and kills an unarmed black man who wasn’t committing a crime. Most of the news stories about these tragedies are about white police officers who pulled the trigger. “A Shot Through the Wall” takes the unusual approach of telling this story from the perspective of a Chinese American police officer who did the killing.

Written and directed by Aimee Long, “A Shot Through the Wall” also explores immigrant issues, as well as prejudices that can exist between people of color from different races. Even though the story takes place in New York City, “A Shot Through the Wall” can apply to many places where racial inequalities determine how people are treated by the criminal justice system. The movie is fictional but inspired by the real-life case of Peter Liang, who was a New York City Police Department officer when he accidentally shot an unarmed, young black man named Akai Gurley through a wall in a Brooklyn apartment building. The 2020 documentary “Down a Dark Stairwell” is about this case.

At times, “A Shot Through the Wall” becomes melodramatic in how the accused police officer reacts to the accusations, when he does some things that would make a defense attorney cringe in real life. However, the movie makes up for some of these contrived-looking dramatics with a lot of dialogue and scenarios that are entirely realistic. The acting performances by the cast members also infuse a lot of authentic emotions into the movie.

The cop at the center of the story is Mike Tan (played by Keny Leu), who is in his late 20s. He lives in Brooklyn with his parents, who are both Chinese immigrants. His domineering mother May Tan (played by Fiona Fu) and his more laid-back father Chow Tan (played by Tzi Ma) were both wary but ultimately supportive of Mike’s decision to become a New York City police officer. Mike has an older sister named Grace Tan (played by Lynn Chen), who frequently visits this family home. Mike and Grace have a close relationship and, for the most part, they get along with each other.

In the beginning of the movie, Mike’s life seems to be going well. He and his fiancée Candace Walker (played by Ciara Renée) are very much in love with each other and will be making plans for their wedding. Candace’s father just happens to be Mike’s boss at the New York City Police Department. His name is Bill Walker (played Clifton Davis), who is deputy chief of the NYPD. Bill approves of Mike and Candace’s relationship, and so do Mike’s parents.

Candace’s mother abandoned the family when Candace was a child because (according to Candace) she didn’t want to raise a biracial child. Candace’s father is black, and her mother is white. Candace’s mother has not been in contact with Bill and Candace and is completely out of their lives. This abandonment has left emotional scars on Candace that come out in different ways. One of those ways is how she has vowed not to be like her mother, so Candace is very loyal to her loved ones.

People’s racial identities are at the forefront of this story, because these identities affect how people view themselves and others. Candace is like a lot of biracial or multiracial people who feel pressure to identify with one race more than any other. Because she was raised by a single black father, and because her skin tone and parentage automatically put her in the racial category of not being white/Caucasian, Candace chooses to identify as black. All of this is important background information when issues over race become the biggest source of tension in the story.

One day, Mike and his white cop partner Ryan Doheney (played by Derek Goh) are walking on patrol in Brooklyn. They talk about how Mike’s parents and Candace’s father will be meeting each other for the first time on an upcoming Friday of that week. Ryan is cocky and gives the impression that he’s kind of a bully. Ryan makes a racist comment that Mike’s “Chinese parents are afraid of meeting their black in-laws.”

Mike laughs it off as a light-hearted joke and replies, “I’m sure they’ll be fine.” Ryan says, “Yeah, that’s what you said about Candace.” Mike answers, “I love Candance now.” Ryan then smirks, “That’s because she’s ‘half,’ bro. You like the white part.” Mike then says with a trace of annoyance, “Go fuck yourself.”

This brief conversation is a peek into the racial dynamics between Ryan and Mike, and what Ryan thinks of black people. It’s also enough to figure out that if Ryan encounters a black person while he’s on duty as a cop, Ryan is likely to instigate a situation to try to get that person in trouble. And sure enough, when Ryan sees five black teenage boys walking down the street together and minding their own business, he immediately tries to accuse them of doing something wrong.

Ryan points out this group of teens to Mike. The two cops walk toward the teenagers, while Mike shouts at the group: “Aren’t you supposed to be in school right now?” One of the boys says that their school sessions have ended for the day. That answer isn’t good enough for these cops. Would these teens have gotten so much scrutiny from these cops if these children were all white? Most people living in the real world would say, “Definitely not.”

Mike asks to see what’s in the teenagers’ backpacks. It’s a request that’s inappropriate, considering the teenagers weren’t bothering anyone. Cops in America don’t have a right to search belongings without a warrant, probable cause related to a crime, or permission from the owner of the belongings. One of the teens (played by Justin Withers) knows it and says so, which annoys Mike and Ryan that this teen knows his rights. Before this disagreement turns into a full-blown argument, one of the other teens (played by Michael Kelly) panics by quickly running away.

It’s reason enough for Mike and Ryan to give chase. After running through some streets, the teen goes into an apartment building. Mike and Ryan run in the building too. They follow the teen until he loses them on the floor where he’s hiding. Mike and Ryan don’t know which apartment unit could be the hiding place of the teenager. And that’s when Mike makes a critical mistake: Mike takes out his gun.

When people talk about unconscious or conscious racial bias, this act of a cop pulling out a gun for this minor situation can be used as an example of this type of racial bias. When the teenager was running away, he was not making any threats. He did not appear to have a weapon. And so, what would make Mike think that this teenager needed to have a gun pulled on him at that moment? It’s an example of racial bias that “A Shot Through the Wall” demonstrates well without saying a word.

Anyone can argue that the teenager shouldn’t have run away. But it’s more important to remember that the cops shouldn’t have approached the teenagers so aggressively in the first place. Maybe the teenager had nothing to hide, but he didn’t want to be around in a situation where the cops might start physically harassing him and his friends. There are all sorts of reasons why people might run away, just like the teenager did. It doesn’t automatically make that person a criminal.

The cops never do find the teenager because something horrible happens that turns this police chase into a tragedy: In Mike’s heightened state of being ready to pull the trigger, Mike accidentally discharges his gun. The bullet goes through a wall. And seconds later, a woman is heard wailing inside the apartment that someone has just shot her son.

Mike and Ryan go inside the apartment where they hear the woman screaming for help. And that’s where they see the victim on the kitchen floor. His name is Jordan Wiggins (played by Darrell Leal), a 27-year-old black man, who was not involved in the chase that led to this shooting. Jordan’s panicked and distraught mother Felicia Wiggins (played by Michelle Wilson) begs the cops to save her son’s life.

Mike and Ryan call for an ambulance and frantically use CPR methods to try to revive Jordan, but it’s too late to save him. A neighbor (played by Timothy Ware-Hill) hears the commotion and goes to the open door to find out what’s happening. When the neighbor sees that it’s an emergency situation, he starts filming this activity with his phone. Mike angrily tells the neighbor to stop filming. The neighbor backs off, but he keeps the video footage. And you just know what’s going to happen to that footage.

Later, Mike and Ryan find out that Jordan was a social worker with no criminal record. The shooting is all over the local news. And immediately, Mike and Ryan are told to meet with the NYPD’s union lawyer Ritchie Barrett (played by Dan Lauria), a jaded and no-nonsense counselor. Ritchie tells Mike and Ryan not to talk to the media and that these two cop partners better get their stories straight. In the meantime, Mike and Ryan have been suspended without pay, as the NYPD’s internal affairs department conducts an investigation. Ritchie also assures Mike and Ryan that this incident will eventually blow over, and they’ll be back on the job.

Mike feels a lot of guilt and shame over what happened, but he doesn’t think that he should go to prison over it. Mike’s family and Candace are horrified too, but they also don’t think that Mike should go to prison. For a brief period of time, Mike’s and Ryan’s names are kept out of the media, because the NYPD and most police departments don’t publicly release the names of cops who are under investigation by internal affairs.

During this brief period of anonymity, Mike and Candace go to an outdoor candlelight vigil being held in tribute to Jordan. The event is open to the public. Jordan’s mother Felicia is there, and so are some civil rights activists in the community. Felicia gives a short but emotional speech. Mike and Candace keep to themselves at this vigil and don’t reveal who they are. When Mike sees the impact of what he did by taking the life of an innocent man, it hits him hard.

After coming home from the vigil, Mike and Candace have a big argument, which is one of the best scenes in the movie. Candace tells Mike, “You don’t know what it’s like to grow up in a world where talking to a cop can get you killed, just because of the color of your skin. It’s not something that happens to someone like you.”

Mike defensively replies, “What? It happens to you? You’re the daughter of a cop!” Candace then says, “You’re right, but my mom walked out on us because of the color of my skin. My dad gets dragged up on the podium to be a black face for the department, every time a black man is shot in Brooklyn. So no, I don’t have the problems they have, but I’ve been dealing with this shit my entire life!”

And just what does Candace’s father think of this shooting? For obvious reasons, Bill doesn’t want Mike to go to prison either. However, that doesn’t mean he will always be on Mike’s side as other things start to happen. Eventually, news of Mike and Ryan being suspended quickly gets leaked, and it’s reported in the media. The identities of Mike and Ryan are now public.

Ryan’s attitude is that he won’t get in as much trouble as Mike because Mike was the one who pulled the trigger. Therefore, when Mike tries to get some emotional support from Ryan, it’s easy for Ryan to tell Mike: “It was an accident. Remember that. It was a horrible thing. You shot him as that happened, but you are not to blame here. You were just doing your job.”

The media attention over the case leads to several public protests and rallies from civil rights activists, who don’t want Ryan and Mike to be let off the hook so easily. After all the media attention, a district attorney named Cynthia Kostas (played by Catherine Curtin) gets involved. Mike finds out the hard way that Ritchie was wrong when he assured Mike and Ryan that everything would be okay.

Mike gets indicted for manslaughter. It’s not spoiler information, since the trailer for “A Shot Through the Wall” shows Mike in court being asked what his plea is. Whether or not he goes to trial is revealed in the movie. But during this legal process, Mike ends up getting his own high-profile defense attorney named Larry Berman (played by Kelly AuCoin), a slick operator who advises Mike to do a TV interview to tell his side of the story. As shown in the movie’s trailer, Mike chooses to do an interview with TV journalist Holly Crane (played by Janie Brookshire), who remains neutral but wants to get as many exclusive scoops that she can from this story.

But the TV interview just makes Mike’s face more well-known to the public. And you can imagine the backlash that Mike experiences as a result. And even though Mike is at the center in this controversy, the movie raises the question of whether or not he would’ve been treated differently by his colleagues and by the public if he had been white. Fortunately, “A Shot Through the Wall” does not shy away from the unique challenges and issues that Asian cops face in police departments where Asians are a small percentage of the racial minorities.

“A Shot Through the Wall” takes a few twists and turns—some more predictable than others. Viewers see how the stress of this shooting case takes a toll on everyone who’s been affected the most by this tragedy. It also becomes apparent that Mike and Grace place a high level of importance on getting approval from their traditional parents, because there’s a very minor subplot about Grace being afraid to tell her parents that she’s queer. Grace is secretly dating a woman and hides this romance from her family.

This fear of parental disapproval and possibly being disowned leads Mike to keep a secret from his parents, who have given Mike a place to live when he’s at an age when most people no longer live with their parents. The movie opens with a scene of Mike and his mother May in the kitchen, as she directs him on the correct way to make and prepare boiled eggs. It seems like a tranquil family moment. But the movie then flashes back three months earlier, to show what led up to this tragedy. The scene is revisited later again in the movie to show that the circumstances under this mother/song bonding in the kitchen aren’t so tranquil after all.

Although “A Shot Through the Wall” is told from Mike’s perspective, other people in the movie get their moments that add depth to their characters. All of the cast members give admirable performances, but Leu and Renée are particularly effective in portraying how this tragedy can forever change a relationship and bring a reckoning over racial issues. Fu and Ma, as Mike’s parents, are also quite good at expressing the anguish they feel, as well as how generational racism can still have ripple effects, even with people who claim that they aren’t racists.

The movie’s pacing and well-placed scenes make it engrossing to watch, even when some situations look condensed for dramatic purposes. “A Shot Through the Wall” is an emotional roller coaster that’s intended to make viewers think about how people are really affected by these tragedies, in ways that aren’t necessarily in news reports. It might be easy for some people to say that this type of shooting death is a cop problem, but the movie poignantly peels back the layers in showing how it’s a larger society problem that often begins with how people treat others who are of different races.

Vertical Entertainment released “A Shot Through the Wall” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on January 21, 2022.

Review: ‘The True Adventures of Wolfboy,’ starring Jaeden Martell, Chris Messina, Eve Hewson, Sophie Giannamore, Chloë Sevigny and John Turturro

November 13, 2020

by Carla Hay

Jaeden Martell in “The True Adventures of Wolfboy” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“The True Adventures of Wolfboy”

Directed by Martin Krejcí

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York state and in Pennsylvania, the dramatic film “The True Adventures of Wolfboy” features a predominantly white cast (with a few African Americans) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A 13-year-old boy with an unusually hairy face runs away from home to find his estranged mother, who abandoned him.

Culture Audience: “The True Adventures of Wolfboy” will appeal primarily to people who like somewhat quirky movies that have surrealistic qualities.

Jaeden Martell and Sophie Giannamore in “The True Adventures of Wolfboy” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

The dramatic film “The True Adventures of Wolfboy” has its heart in the right place, but it’s expressed in a somewhat erratic way that leaves the movie feeling slightly off-kilter, only to be set on the right track by admirable performances by the some of the cast members. The movie can’t seem to decide if it wants to be a straight-ahead drama or a fantasy tale. Fortunately, the performances of most of the actors are worth seeing in this coming-of-age story that can be rambling and unfocused but redeems itself with the emotionally touching moments in the last third of the film.

Directed by Martin Krejcí and written by Olivia Dufault in their feature-film debut, “The True Adventures of Wolfboy” centers on a 13-year-old boy named Paul Harker (played by Jaeden Martell), who has a biological condition called hypertrichosis, which causes excessive hair growth all over his body, including his face. Cutting the hair only makes it grow even more. Paul, who is an only child, lives in a modest house somewhere in New York state with his single father Denny (played by Chris Messina), who’s a sanitation worker/garbage collector.

Paul’s mother Jen (played by Chloë Sevigny) abandoned Paul and Denny years ago. It’s implied later in the story that Jen left when Paul was a baby and has not been in contact with him since. The movie begins on Paul’s 13th birthday, when he is staring at himself in a mirror and saying out loud: “I’m a regular kid. I’m just like everyone else. I’m a normal kid.”

For Paul’s birthday, Denny takes him to a carnival that’s nearby. Because Paul is self-conscious about his face, he often wears a ski mask in public. Denny has been teaching Paul to build his self-confidence, by trying to instill in Paul that he should conduct himself with “dignity.” He also advises Paul: “When you’re scared, you don’t run.”

That advice is easier said than done when shortly after they arrive at the carnival and are standing in line for an amusement-park ride, Paul is confronted by a three male bullies who are around his age. One of the brats is named Buck (played by Colin Patrick Farrell), who asks Denny, in reference to Paul’s mother: “How did it feel? To screw that dog?” And then he and his pals run away laughing.

After that awkward experience, Denny tells Paul that he needs to take off his ski mask while they are waiting in line. Paul reluctantly takes off the mask and braces himself for the stares and rude comments that he knows that he will get when people see his hairy face. Denny momentarily walks away, and the bullies come back and further taunt Paul by saying that his mother is a dog.

The three obnoxious teens then chase Paul away from the line, and he hides in a portable toilet, where the bullies come after him and yell at Paul by ordering him to bark like a dog. It’s a humiliating experience that Paul is very angry about when he and Denny are at home later. Denny can only say that he’s sorry that it happened while he tries to comfort his son.

Paul gets even angrier when Denny shows him a promotional video for Griffin School, a private learning institution for special-needs kids. Denny makes its clear that he wants Paul to go to the school. Paul reacts by telling Denny in a hostile tone of voice, “I think if you send me to this school, I’ll burn it to the ground.”

As a birthday gift, Denny gives Paul a watch. But there’s something else that Paul gets on his birthday that’s more important to him. A wrapped gift has arrived mysteriously at the house. When Paul opens the gift, he finds a map with a red line that’s drawn from where he lives in New York state to a city in Pennsylvania. On the map, are the handwritten words: “When you’re ready, there’s an explanation.” The gift doesn’t come with a return address or a name, so Paul assumes that the gift is from his mother.

Denny asks a very resistant Paul to try on the Griffin School uniform. Paul says to Denny, “Mom would never make me go to this school.” In exasperation, Denny blurts out, “If she cared so much about you, why’d she leave?”

It’s the type of comment that Denny immediately regrets saying, and he makes a sincere apology to Paul. Denny explains that the subject of Paul’s mother is a sore subject and he just doesn’t want to talk about her. He also asks Paul not to talk about her either.

Upstairs in his bedroom at night, Paul is feeling lonely and miserable. And so, he climbs out of his bedroom window, while still in the school uniform, and runs away from home. Paul goes directly to the carnival, where he meets the carnival’s sleazy owner Mr. Silk (played by John Turturro), who wears his long gray hair in a ponytail and has the demeanor of a con artist who can’t be trusted.

Paul asks Mr. Silk if he knows how to get to Pennsylvania. When Paul takes off his ski mask, Mr. Silk comments on Paul’s face: “Wow, that is some kind of beautiful.” Mr. Silk senses Paul’s vulnerability and figures out immediately that Paul is a runaway. He tells Paul that if Paul does a “partnership” with him, Paul can will make “enough money to get to Pennsylvania 10 times over.”

It should come as no surprise that Mr. Silk wants to exploit Paul by making him a “freak” sideshow act for the carnival. Paul is very reluctant to agree to being labeled as a Dangerous Dog Boy (which is the name that Mr. Silk gives him), but Paul eventually caves in to the pressure from Mr. Silk because Paul needs the money. Meanwhile, Denny has filed a missing-persons report about Paul with the local police, who send a cop named Officer Pollok (played by Michelle Wilson) to interview Denny and investigate Paul’s disappearance.

“The True Adventures of Wolfboy” screenplay has some glaring plot holes and flaws that lower the quality of the movie. For example, Paul (who has a very distinctive face that would make him stand out anywhere) is supposed to be missing for several days. And yet, the police don’t find out that boy who fits the exact description of Paul is working as a sideshow act at the carnival in town—the same carnival where Paul was last seen in public.

Not long after working at the carnival, Paul finds out that Mr. Silk is not going to pay him. And so, out of revenge, Paul steals some of the carnival’s cash and burns the carnival to the ground before running away again. It won’t be the last time that viewers will see of Mr. Silk, who decides he’s going to track down Paul. Now that Mr. Silk’s entire business has been destroyed in the fire, he’s got a lot of time on his hands.

The arson is also another reason why the police are looking for Paul, although the police’s shoddy investigation into his disappearance is why this movie’s story is able to stretch out for as long as it does. Immediately after the arson, Paul hides in a doghouse of a random stranger’s backyard.

When he wakes up the next morning, he sees a girl who’s wearing a swimming cap, playing in a ring tube filled with bubbles, and she’s singing like a mystical siren. The movie, which is introduced in chapters with title cards in a format similar to a 19th century European children’s book, calls this chapter “Wolfboy Meets a Mermaid.” The girl isn’t a real mermaid, but she often dresses as if she wants to be a mermaid.

The girl sees Paul come out of the doghouse and is so startled, that she screams and runs into her house. She can see him from a second-floor window, and Paul asks her for something to eat. She throws a sandwich out of the window to him. Shortly afterward, she decides to return to the backyard to talk to Paul.

She introduces herself as Aristiana (played Sophie Giannamore), and Paul immediately insults her by telling her that she has a stupid name. She retorts, “For the record, you’re trespassing,” He comments on her singing, “For the record, you sound like shit.” Aristiana responds by making a remark about Paul’s face, “Just because you look like that doesn’t give you permission to be a dick.”

If you’ve seen enough movies with this type of banter, you know exactly where Aristiana and Paul’s relationship is going to go. Aristiana and Paul end up running away together in his quest to find his mother. However, this isn’t a typical teen romance seen in movies, because it’s very casually mentioned at some point in the story that Aristiana is a transgender girl. Paul immediately accepts her as a girl, but there’s one point in the story when he gets angry at her and calls her a “boy.”

Does Paul end up finding his mother? (That question is answered in the movie’s trailer, but it won’t be spoiled in this review.) Will the police or Mr. Silk find Paul? And if so, who will find Paul first? Those questions are answered in rest of the movie, which includes some scenes of Aristiana taking Paul to a bar that’s a hangout for misfits.

The bar allows underage people to drink alcohol and smoke. It’s at this bar where for the first time, Paul sees Aristiana sing in front of an audience, and he’s awed by her. Paul later tells Aristiana that he didn’t mean what he said earlier when he told her that she wasn’t a good singer.

And it’s at this bar that Paul gets drunk for the first time. It’s also where Paul meets an acquaintance of Aristiana: a rebellious thief named Rose (played by Eve Hewson), who is in her 20s, has hot-pink hair, and wears an eyepatch. Rose ends up taking Paul and Aristiana on an armed robbery spree, which is briefly shown in the movie’s trailer.

“The True Adventures of Wolfboy” tries a little too hard to be whimsical and quirky, like it was going for the same tone as director Tim Burton’s 2003 film “Big Fish.” But at times, this effort for “The True Adventures of Wolfboy” to be unusual comes across as a bit too contrived and hollow. The performances from the film’s main cast members are what make watching the film worthwhile, because there are scenarios in this movie that have been done a lot better in other films. And there is indeed a “fairy tale” aspect to the story, since Paul doesn’t face any legal consequences from the crimes he commits.

Martell is a wonderfully talented actor who elevates the material that he’s been given in almost everything he does. His performance is by far the best thing about “The True Adventures of Wolfboy.” (Paul’s “wolf” look is achieved by some fairly impressive hair and makeup.) Giannamore is also a standout as the precocious Aristiana.

Turturro hams it up a little too much for him to be taken seriously as a villain. Mr. Silk has the ability to suddenly and unrealistically appear in places, which will make people wonder if he’s fully human or not. Messina’s Denny character shows hints of deep emotional pain, but Denny isn’t in the movie enough for viewers to really get a full picture of who he is. In other words, Messina’s talent is wasted in this film.

The character of Rose isn’t very well-written. Rose is essentially there because she has a car and she’s old enough to drive, thereby giving Paul and Aristiana a means to travel faster than if they were stuck taking public transportation. Rose introduces Paul and Aristiana to a life of armed robbery, but her character is so underdeveloped that she comes across as an unnecessary “third wheel” to Paul and Aristiana.

Krejcí’s direction makes “The True Adventures of Wolfboy” look better than much of the actual dialogue and the structure of the screenplay. The last 20 minutes of the movie are where it shines the most. Just like the hair all over Paul’s face can distract people from seeing his true character, so too does “The True Adventures of Wolfboy” have a lot of distracting clutter that people need to weed through to get to the heart of the story.

Vertical Releasing released “The True Adventures of Wolfboy” on digital and VOD on October 30, 2020.

Review: ‘Premature’ (2020), starring Zora Howard and Joshua Boone

February 21, 2020

by Carla Hay

Joshua Boone and Zora Howard in “Premature” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Premature” (2020)

Directed by Rashaad Ernesto Green

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the predominantly African American cast of characters, who are mostly in their late teens and early 20s, represent the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: The main characters have to decide if they’ll go to college or do other things with their lives.

Culture Audience: “Premature” will appeal to viewers looking for a well-acted African American story, but the movie recycles the same, often-negative clichés about young black people in urban settings.

Zora Howard and Joshua Boone in “Premature” (Photo by Laura Valladao)

Here’s the thing about movies with predominantly African American casts: Too many of them show black people in crime-ridden areas, where they’re at risk of being criminals too, if they aren’t criminals already. There’s at least one single mother who’s constantly yelling at her kid(s), perpetuating the “angry black woman” image and the image that black men abandon their kids. These are tired and lazy stereotypes that are perpetuated by too many filmmakers, even African American filmmakers.

The reality is that African Americans are much more diverse that what’s depicted in movies. Most African Americans aren’t poor and aren’t criminals. Most African American men aren’t deadbeat losers. Most African American women aren’t single mothers by the time they’re 21.

The challenge for filmmakers is to show more of that diversity and stop falling back on overused tropes that fuel a lot of damaging racist agendas. That doesn’t mean dismissing the very real struggles of African Americans, because these struggles need to be shown on screen. But there’s no creativity in doing that over and over and ignoring many other aspects of African American life that aren’t about criminal activity or unplanned pregnancies.

With all that said, the African American drama “Premature” shows hints of breaking out of those confining boxes, even though it falls into the same clichés seen in so many other movies about young African Americans in a big city. Directed by Rashaad Ernesto Green, “Premature” (his second feature film) is about two New York City residents in their late teens who have reached that post-high-school point in their lives when they’re deciding their goals and career aspirations. They unexpectedly fall in love, and their future plans might be affected by this romance.

Ayanna (played by Zora Howard, who wrote the “Premature” screenplay with Green) is a pretty, thoughtful and somewhat shy woman who is an aspiring poet. She’s headed to Bucknell University (a private liberal arts college in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania) in the fall. But, for now, she’s enjoying her last summer before becoming a college student. Her circle of female friends seem to have no plans for college and talk in Ebonics, which is why Ayanna is different from them. One of her friends is an obnoxious, foul-mouthed single mother named Tenita (played by Alexis Marie Wint), who’s always yelling at her daughter. The Tenita character is such a cringeworthy “ghetto” stereotype.

Isaiah (played by Joshua Boone) is an aspiring musician/producer, who’s getting some knowledge and experience by hanging out at a small recording studio frequented by local artists who are also seeking to make it big someday. Isaiah is confident, friendly and a lot more respectful than some of his trash-talking friends who see women as nothing more than sexual conquests.

Ayanna and Isaiah first see each other on a basketball court. They lock eyes, as the central couple always does in a romantic drama, and they strike up a conversation. Ayanna plays hard to get, but eventually she and Isaiah start dating each other. She tells him from the beginning that she’s going to Bucknell in the fall, but they decide they’ll figure out their relationship as they go along.

Ayanna lives in a cramped Harlem apartment with her single mother Sarita (played by Michelle Wilson), who has a somewhat tense relationship with Ayanna. It’s clear that Ayanna doesn’t care for her mother’s taste in boyfriends, and the current boyfriend is no exception. The boyfriend isn’t abusive, but Ayanna seems to resent that he takes up space when he’s there visiting. At any rate, Ayanna can’t wait to move out and have her own place.

Shortly after Ayanna and Isaiah become lovers, their relationship hits a jealousy bump in the road. One evening, he and Ayanna are spending some time playing cards with friends when a young white woman who’s close to their age shows up unannounced and insists on speaking to Isaiah in private. By the way she’s acting, it’s very easy to see that she and Isaiah have been “more than friends.”

When Isaiah comes back in the room, the normally quiet Ayanna explodes with hostility and asks Isaiah who the other woman was and what his relationship is to her. Isaiah is taken aback at Ayanna’s jealousy and admits that it was a woman he’d been sleeping with, but their relationship ended before he met Ayanna. He just didn’t tell the other woman that he was dating someone new, and she found out through other people, which is why she was upset with him. Ayanna accepts Isaiah’s explanation, but she starts to wonder if he’s the type of person who plays games with the women he dates. She pulls back a little from him and decides that since she’s going away to college soon, it’s not worth investing her heart with him.

On another night, at a house party that Ayanna goes to without Isaiah, a young man ask her to dance. Feeling like she’s technically single, Ayanna starts grinding on the guy while they’re dancing. Unbeknownst to her, Isaiah has shown up at the party too. She doesn’t see him, but he sees her grinding on another man. Looking visibly hurt, Isaiah leaves the party. The next time he sees Ayanna, it’s his turn to be irritated with her because he’s jealous. They argue some more and then make up. And as they spend more time together, they inevitably fall in love.

It’s interesting how much the story coincidentally mirrors writer/director Horace B. Jenkins’ early 1980s movie “Cane River,” which was also about two African American young people who fall in love over the summer before the woman in the relationship plans to move away to go to college. In this story, they also have to decide whether to end the relationship or continue it long-distance. (“Cane River,” which was set in Louisiana, was originally going to be released in 1982, but then Jenkins died that year, and the movie was finally released in 2020.)

The biggest difference though is that in “Premature,” something happens that’s a big cliché in love stories about African American teenagers. (Hint: Birth control is not seen or discussed in this movie.) And so, “Premature” is yet another movie that has this cliché, which obviously has a massive effect on the couple’s relationship.

The cast’s realistic acting in “Premature” is what elevates a lot of this not-very-original story, whose ending is very easy to predict because it’s the type of story that’s been told many times on screen already. As a director, Green shows a lot of talent in casting and editing choices. It’s the “Premature” screenplay that’s problematic. (But to its credit, the last half of the “Premature” screenplay is much better than the first half.)

Anyone who thinks this is an original way to portray black teenagers is someone who hasn’t seen a lot of African American films. And let’s face it: There are some people who are more comfortable with certain negative stereotypes of African Americans, even if it’s not a realistic depiction of African Americans overall.

One of the best scenes in the movie has nothing to do with the up-and-down romance of Ayanna and Isaiah. The scene takes place in a recording studio, where Isaiah and other young artists get into a spirited discussion about how much responsibility artists, especially black artists, should have in putting social messages in their art. It’s a great scene because it shows the characters without the caricature-like Ebonics that are in the movie’s other scenes and instead shows the characters talking as well-rounded, intelligent people with diverse points of view, without losing their ethnic pride.

“Premature” doesn’t show Ayanna at college, but that’s the kind of movie that would’ve been more interesting than what “Premature” is. Justin Simien’s 2014 comedy “Dear White People” and Spike Lee’s 1988 musical “School Daze” are two of the rare theatrical-release movies with predominantly African American casts that take place at a university. (It says a lot that these movies were released 26 years apart.) There are millions of African Americans who are college graduates, but a black college student is almost never the lead character in a movie. This is an example of the type of African American who is underrepresented in movies about African Americans.

There are many people in this world who have little to no contact with African Americans, so they get their impressions from what they see on screen. If you were to go by how young black people are depicted in movies, you’d think that young black men mainly aspire to be athletes, entertainers or criminals. There are plenty of hard-working, law-abiding young black people who have different aspirations for professions where they won’t be considered “too old” by the time they’re 35. Let’s see more of those young people depicted in movies. Unfortunately, “Premature” stays in that predictable zone and doesn’t take the types of diverse, creative risks that are very much needed in telling African American stories in cinema.

IFC Films released “Premature” in New York City and Los Angeles on February 21, 2020. The movie’s U.S. theatrical release expands to more cities in subsequent weeks.

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