Teen pictures in which kids square off in a competition form a genre unto themselves, yet the warm and wise "Roll Bounce" confounds all expectations. Writer Norman Vance Jr. and director Malcolm D. Lee dare to suggest that winning may not be everything, that a father-and-son relationship may actually be more important than a skate-off, and that it's possible to set a film in 1978 without drowning it in nostalgia and dated fads. "Roll Bounce" sports Afros and bell-bottoms yet doesn't overdo them and always has the feeling of happening in the here and now.
At the same time, "Roll Bounce" has plenty of affectionate humor to balance some serious heart-tugging. And as for the roller-skating, it for sure provides a lot of razzle-dazzle action with lots of virtuoso terpsichorean touches. When the young people of "Roll Bounce" hit the rink with all their nifty moves, "Saturday Night Fever" with John Travolta's disco king immediately comes to mind, and this film has much the same ingredients and appeal of the 1977 classic.
Rapper Bow Wow, who in "Like Mike" and "Johnson Family Vacation" emerged as a screen natural, has his most challenging role yet as X — that's for Xavier — a likable, charismatic Chicago South Side teenager who, beneath an often smiling, happy-go-lucky surface, is consumed with grief.
His mother, who also was his best friend, has been dead less than a year, and the loss has also devastated her husband, Curtis (Chi McBride), and created a chasm between father and son wider and deeper than either realize. Neither can let go of her, and neither can admit it. As if this tragedy were not enough, Curtis has been laid off from his job as an airplane designer, and while he looks for work, he hides this setback from his son and 5-year-old daughter Sonya (Busisiwe Irvin).
X and his live-wire pals (Brandon T. Jackson, Marcus T. Paulk, Rick Gonzalez and Khleo Thomas) look forward to spending a lot of their summer hours at the venerable Palisades Gardens Roller Rink not far from the pleasant suburb where they live. But abruptly it shuts down, slated for demolition. So the group, which also includes the feisty new girl on the block, Tori (Jurnee Smollett), reluctantly heads for the North Side's flashy Sweetwater rink, where the hilariously self-absorbed Sweetness (Wesley Jonathan) reigns as the haughty, preening king of the rink.
A skate-off between Sweetness and his crew and X and his group is inevitable.
But as this competition develops, tensions between X and Curtis emerge to dominate the story as father and son thrash through much pain and anger in their attempts to get through to each other.
At the film's Tuesday premiere at the Bridge, Lee aptly described McBride as the film's anchor. He is an actor of formidable resources and presence, and he provides the ballast for bringing out a wrenching portrayal from Bow Wow. "Roll Bounce" has a large cast, and along with Smollett, other vivid presences include Kellita Smith as her mother, Meagan Good as the girl trying to connect with the troubled X, and Mike Epps and Charlie Murphy as a pair of uproariously comical garbage collectors. "Roll Bounce" has lots more than winning on its mind.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for brief strong language
Times guidelines: Suitable family fare but too emotionally intense for younger children
A Fox Searchlight release. Director Malcolm D. Lee. Producers Robert Teitel, George Tillman Jr. Executive producers Adam Robinson, Dana J. Reid. Screenplay by Norman Vance Jr. Cinematographer J. Michael Muro. Editors George Bowers, Paul Millspaugh. Music Stanley Clarke. Costumes Danielle Hollowell. Production designer William Elliott. Art director Gary Baugh. Set decorator Patricia Schneider. Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes.At selected theaters.