Newcomer Zephyr Benson recalls the young Harmony Korine — not the director who earned Terrence Malick comparisons with "Gummo" but the screenwriting wunderkind behind Larry Clark's "Kids." About a teenager's descent into the drug underworld, Benson's "Straight Outta Tompkins" undeniably commands attention but also strives for authenticity ham-handedly.
Benson writes, directs and stars as Eugene, a 17-year-old prep-school student. Since his mother's passing, his father has moved to Thailand, remarried and left him in his older sister's care. While his pitching skills field interest from college baseball scouts, Eugene's pot brownies similarly help catch the attention of drug dealer Cruz (Aaron Costa Ganis). Eugene finds a surrogate family in Cruz's crew, but eventually he realizes that it's all business.
The film being essentially an after-school special, Benson goes out of his way to embellish the grittiness quotient with cursing, substance abuse and violence. In an early voice-over soliloquy, Eugene muses on how his white privilege helps him evade police suspicion. But this social awareness soon gives way to myopic finger pointing at parental failings.
Stylistically owing to Danny Boyle and a few others, Benson makes an assured directorial debut. His overwrought screenplay very much feels like the product of film school even though he dropped out. But his central performance is perhaps the biggest flaw, with an air of languor that constantly hinders the film's credibility.
'Straight Outta Tompkins'
MPAA rating: None
Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes.
Playing: At Laemmle NoHo 7, North Hollywood.