Boaz Yakin's Fresh has its heart in the right place, but it takes a bewildering wrong turn.
First, the acceptable news: Yakin again shows us the dangers and sorrows facing a good kid on the streets of the ghetto. Twelve-year-old Fresh (Sean Nelson) lives with his aunt and eleven cousins in a tiny Brooklyn apartment, and even as he worries about being late for school, he's up to his little neck in hazards: He's simultaneously running heroin for the flashy dealer Esteban (Giancarlo Esposito) and steering crack users to Esteban's brutal neighborhood rival, Corky (Ron Brice).
Five or six years ago, this would have been shocking stuff to watch on a movie screen, but the new realism (not to mention real life) has numbed us. Even when this wide-eyed baby discovers his older sister Nichole (N'Bushe Wright) half naked and on the nod in Esteban's lair, or when a small friend is killed, the audience barely blinks. That's not a good thing, but the new wave of minority filmmakers may have no choice right now but to keep upping the violence ante. Yakin does that, and he doesn't blink, either.
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Now, the unacceptable news: Not only does this filmmaker send an ambiguous message by showing us the huge wad of drug cash his inventive twelve-year-old has socked away, but he can't resist selling his movie out to conventional action fantasy in its second half. Yakin's previous writing credits are a couple of frantic formula thrillers, but that doesn't excuse the tricked-up plotting in Fresh: Faced with the loss of his family, the kid (who, beneath his problems, is really a chess whiz) cooks up an elaborate, highly unlikely scheme to pit the two drug dealers against each other and live happily ever after.
For a movie steeped in New Jack reality, this is a rather extreme intrusion of fairy-tale thinking--the kind of thing the greenest studio reader would reject.
Meanwhile, the kids in the movie (Nelson, Luis Lantingua, Yul Vasquez, etc.) don't seem very comfortable before the camera, and Samuel L. Jackson's portrayal of little Fresh's long-lost father is startling in only one respect--he's an absolute reproduction of the canny speed-chess champion Larry Fishburne played in Searching for Bobby Fischer.
The mean streets, it appears, are awash in both blood and cliches.