This has been a strong year for first-time independent filmmakers. David O. Russell's Spanking the Monkey was one of 1994's pleasant surprises; ditto Kevin Smith's soon-to-be-released Clerks and Mexican filmmaker Guillermo Toro's Cronos. But without question, rookie-of-the-year awards go to Boaz Yakin, writer and director of Fresh, which may be the mostly fully realized dramatic film of the year.
Yakin's first credits came as a screenwriter, though his work on the Clint Eastwood flop The Rookie hardly prepares you for Fresh's sophistication and complexities. But the sense of Yakin as writer pervades his current film. In another age he would no doubt be a novelist of note. That's because, for all of Fresh's careful and artful plotting, its characters come first. Almost every personage, from major to minor, has that extra level of complexity and unpredictability that makes them seem alive rather than simple pawns in Yakin's elaborate chess game.
No doubt this is partly a function of Boaz' skill in directing actors, but it must also come from his ability to see into his characters' souls and show us not only their exterior lives, but also how they see themselves.
This is particularly apparent in the characters of Esteban (Giancarlo Esposito, in his best performance yet), a Brooklyn heroin dealer whose passion for women is both creepy and somehow pure, and Sam (Samuel L. Jackson), the estranged father of young Fresh (Sean Nelson), a middle-school student/drug runner who's been trying to survive from one day to the next, but who now wants to escape the streets and save his junkie sister in the process.
We're never told why Fresh isn't allowed to see his father, who lives off of, of all things, his chess hustling in Washington Square Park. Sam is a master of speed chess, in which the timer allows you only seconds between moves. Sam's moves can be measured in nanoseconds; by the time his opponent's released his piece, Sam's finished his countermove and the timer is once again tolling. It's Sam's notion that he can't quite match the Bobby Fischers and Gary Kasparovs of the civilized chess world, but "put them on the timer and their ass is mine."
He doesn't have to say that under different racial and economic circumstances, he could have been a contender. He doesn't have to tell us that he's bitter. Jackson's intensity and intelligence do all of that. What's particularly intriguing, however, is the way Boaz and Jackson show us a side of Sam that would make him a good father if he only knew how to use it. His not-knowing is a lack made all the more aching for remaining unspoken.
But the center of the film belongs to Fresh. The 13-year-old Sean Nelson, in his movie debut, appears in almost every frame. The genius of his and Yakin's characterization starts with his character's name, which is poignant and deeply ironic. As played by Nelson, Fresh manages to be a ballsy drug runner for a local crack merchant and an honest-to-God kid, one who has just met the first girl he really likes.
Nelson gives a nicely laconic performance. He doesn't have to say or do much to clue us into his character's inner life and thought processes, or to convince us that Fresh could just as easily be a Boy Scout as a crack gopher. The drug trade is treated as simple street-level capitalism and completely deglamorized. Fresh isn't interested in buying a snazzier pair of sneakers or in one day owning a fine car. To the preternaturally mature Fresh, the drug trade simply offers a way for him and his sister to survive the mean streets. This despite the fact that he is himself a budding chess genius. We can well imagine that, like his father, he has the potential to make his way in chess, if only life would give him some breathing room. But the movie and the character both are far too wise to even imagine that making "one last score" in the drug trade will lead to a chance at chess stardom.
Instead (and in Boaz' most risky plot development), Fresh applies his chess skills, and his father's chess teachings, to extricating himself and his sister from a drug war they get caught in. The risk Yakin took was that his chess-wars strategy would seem impossibly hokey. But he presents the plot device so straightforwardly, without any tricks or metaphors to suggest Fresh's thinking, that it feels perfectly natural.
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Since Fresh's chess lessons include the concept of sacrificing the occasional piece to win the prize, and since the "other pieces" are his fellow drug-scene figures, including friends, the game becomes a blood sport. At this point the plotting becomes quite dense, but Yakin manages to keep it from overwhelming his characters. This is, in fact, the strongest wedding of character to plot I've seen in some time.
Written and directed by Boaz Yakin. With Sean Nelson, Samuel L. Jackson and Giancarlo Esposito.