Fresh (Sean Nelson) is a 12-year-old drug dealer who finds himself trapped in a web of poverty, corruption and racial tension in Brooklyn, New York. When his drug-addict sister Nichole (N'Bushe Wright) starts sleeping with local drug lord Esteban (Giancarlo Esposito), Fresh calls upon the skills he learned playing chess with his alcoholic father and speed-chess champion Sam (Samuel L. Jackson) and devises a complex strategy that will free both himself and his sister.Written by
Written by Aida Periera
Published by Full Keel Music Co. (ASCAP)
Performed by Tito Punete Orchestra
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A movie to make your jaw drop open
Now I have witnessed the third truly great film to have come out of America in 1994. One that can hold its own, and more, against such films released that year as "Pulp Fiction," "Natural Born Killers," and "Vanya on 42nd Street." It's called "Fresh," and I'll go out on a limb to say it's as powerful an urban drama as any other I've seen in my life.
There are no fancy cinematic magic tricks going on in this film, aside from an instance of superimposed images that is so simple it almost seems like a throwback to old silent dramas. There are no choreographed gun fights, no switching film stocks to produce psychedelic effects, nothing like that. Not to say that these things cannot be used appropriately and judiciously to enhance the effect of a particular film, but "Fresh" is stripped bare, and must depend on its performances, direction, and writing alone.
For starters, a young Sean Nelson delivers a performance that puts the lion's share of veteran actors to shame. He's completely lacking in self-consciousness, almost like he's unaware that the camera is on him for nine out of ten of the shots in "Fresh." His character, for which the film takes its title, may be the smartest youth in motion picture history for whom genius is not a gimmick or a joke (i.e. "Good Will Hunting," "Real Genius," stuff like that). Watching him, you see a wise old actor in a teen's body; he does not "act" any emotions or thoughts, but merely feels them and thinks them. He seems to embody bits of screen legend: a little Bogart stalwartness there, some of Jimmy Stewart's quiet charm here, and most of all Morgan Freeman's ability to communicate much while doing or saying very little.
That'd be just enough for most movies, but Nelson is backed by a choice supporting cast: the two most recognizable names are obviously Samuel L. Jackson (Fresh's chessmaster/alcoholic father) and Giancarlo Esposito (the slimy, high-living drug dealer Esteban), and both are perfect in award-caliber performances. Two lesser known actors, N'Bushe Wright (Fresh's junkie sister Nichole) and Jean LaMare (as Jake, the hot tempered low-man-on-the-totem-pole employee of Corky) are also terrific in key roles.
The screenplay, by director Boaz Yakin, is doggedly unpredictable, but in retrospect it all makes perfect sense -- nothing in the movie pushes the bounds of credibility. I've seen truckloads of thrillers, most of them are wearily proficient at making you guess what's next. None but a few, however, kept me guessing WHEN to guess, or surprised me with such affecting emotional developments. None but a few moved along with such self-assured grace and style. "Fresh" knows its territory, the time and place it's set in, and it provides characters who talk like they do in real life -- not ones that sound like they're in a movie where they talk like they do in real life.
The use of violence is admirably restrained. Most of it takes place off camera, silhouetted, or cut away from quickly. The two scenes of bloodletting, when they are shown to us, are literally heartbreaking. Not only does "Fresh" keep us off guard on a psychological level, but on an emotional one as well, something few films ever think of doing.
If I were to offer one criticism, it would be that the chess metaphor was pressed just a bit too hard by Yakin (though the final scene is devastating): we already know that this kid is thinking like a master strategist, we don't need quite so many shots of him playing the game in his room. That's a small quibble, though, because the chess metaphor is entirely appropriate, and Jackson's early speech about the game is an ingenious device.
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