3 stars (out of four)
By contemporary standards, "Roll Bounce" is a teen movie of unusually sweet disposition, set in 1978 Chicago among a group of South Side kids who love to roller skate. When the Palisades Gardens rink closes--"we can't keep nuthin' open in the 'hood," bemoans one of the guys--Xavier, also known as "X" and played by Bow Wow, ventures northward with his friends to an upscale promised land: The Sweetwater Roller Rink, land of the intimidating hotties and home of some of the bravest, most fearsome moves on wheels.
You want a sociologically penetrating study of Carter-era working-class African-Americans, try well, actually, you can't see a movie like that at the moment, but "Roll Bounce" is an easygoing good time. It harkens back to a time when everybody was kung fu fighting, or at least skating to a song about it, and Asteroids shone as the pinnacle of video gaming.
X lives with his father, Curtis (Chi McBride), who is grieving the death of his wife. Their new neighbors are Tori (Jurnee Smollett), flashing a mouthful of braces and a sunny disposition, and her recently divorced mother, Vivian (Kellita Smith). Tori has to put up with heaps of trash talk from X's friends--but the tone of all the dissing, and the loose, engaging vibe of the ensemble, keep things nicely on track until the big Sweetwater competition. There X and his friends square off against the flamboyant North Side ace, Sweetness (Wesley Jonathan), and his posse. Wayne Brady has a cameo as the emcee, and a disappointing one: He deserves funnier material.
Director Malcolm D. Lee ("The Best Man," "Undercover Brother") works from a script by Norman Vance Jr., co-writer of the film version of "Beauty Shop." Some of the period details feel dubious: Were people really saying "Psych!" to each other in 1978? I'll give the movie its breakdancing skaters, since breakdancing was just coming in around then, but I'm not sure about "psych." Whatever.
The movie is a thing of honey and gloss, yet there's just enough heart in the central father/son relationship, and in the teenagers' ensemble interactions, to make it glide by. The tone, buoyant without being brainless, is such that you wonder if "Roll Bounce" wasn't in fact filmed in 1978, not just set in it.
The soundtrack's prime, too, straddling eras with "Kung Fu Fighting" and the like mixing it up with covers of "Boogie Oogie Oogie" and "Wishing on a Star." The film won't do anything to toughen up the image of Bow Wow, formerly known as Lil' Bow Wow, formerly known before that as Shad Gregory Moss. Big deal. He's a pretty decent actor, and unlike so many other rapper-turned-actors, trained by the music video ethos never to acknowledge anyone else's presence on screen, Mr. Wow actually looks his fellow actors in the eye when the script requires.
Directed by Malcolm D. Lee; screenplay by Norman Vance Jr.; cinematography by J. Michael Muro; production design by William A. Elliott; music by Stanley Clarke; edited by George Bowers and Paul Millspaugh; produced by Robert Teitel and George Tillman Jr. A Fox Searchlight Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:47. MPAA rating: PG-13 (some sexual references, crude humor and brief drug material).
X - Bow Wow
Curtis Smith - Chi McBride
Byron - Mike Epps
Sweetness - Wesley Jonathan
Vivian - Kellita Smith
Naomi - Meagan Good
Tori - Jurnee Smollett