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MOVIE REVIEW : Violence, Drugs and Chess : In ‘Fresh,’ Authenticity Ends Up Being Sacrificed for Titillation

TIMES FILM CRITIC

“Fresh” isn’t. Glibly shocking, it would like you to think it deals with the hard realities of urban life, but in fact it uses its patina of social consciousness as a come-on for the most conventional kind of violent commercial filmmaking.

Set in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn and revolving around the life and hard times of 12-year-old Michael, Fresh to his friends, Boaz Yakin’s debut film as a writer-director does have several effective acting performances, especially Sean Nelson’s in the title role.

But no amount of eye-catching acting can disguise the fact that this film is a masquerade. Despite its attempt at an authentic setting, “Fresh” has more in common with earlier Yakin writing projects like the Clint Eastwood actioner “The Rookie” than with something like “Boyz N the Hood.”

Initially, however, “Fresh” has a promising air to it. Fresh’s encounter with a kindly Latino lady who provides chocolate chip cookies while she gets some heroin ready for him to deliver has an intriguing quality. Who is this stone-faced youngster, so sure of himself in such an unnerving world?

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Perhaps because he lives with a saintly aunt and no less than 11 cousins in a crowded group home, Fresh spends much of his time out on the street working for a cross-section of drug dealers.

Esteban (Giancarlo Esposito) is the elegant local heroin connection, given to rhapsodizing about “the Land of H” and talking about his work as more secure than banking. By contrast, Corky (Ron Brice) and Jake (Jean LaMarre), the crack establishment, are much more volatile and bad-tempered individuals.

All parties agree, however, that Fresh is a stand-up little guy, smart, ambitious, the very picture of responsibility. Corky speaks for the entire neighborhood when he says, “Only reason you not the man, you too . . . little.”

Adept at looking after himself, Fresh is, not by choice, estranged from his family. His mother is not around, his sister Nichole (N’Bushe Wright) is a heroin addict who the married Esteban is drawn to, and Fresh’s father, Sam, is a story all by himself.

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A speed chess wizard who (like the Laurence Fishburne character in “Searching for Bobby Fisher”) hustles the unwary in Washington Square Park, Sam only meets with his son to tutor him in the game. A believer in values despite his dissolute lifestyle, Sam is given a smart and powerful presence by Samuel L. Jackson that emphasizes the ambivalent place he has in his son’s life.

Sean Nelson, who has done some previous TV and theater work, holds his own with Jackson as a boy whose face gives nothing away. Esposito, Wright, Brice and LaMarre also provide vivid performances, but even early on the uncomfortable sense that things are being artificially over-amped is present.

That artificiality soon takes permanent hold when a calculated-to-shock act of random violence turns Fresh’s world around and motivates him to attempt a plan of such complexity that it takes the rest of the picture just to work itself out.

Though “Fresh” wants us to believe that the boy’s chess-playing skills enable him to concoct such an intricate scenario, in fact the idea is so far-fetched and unlikely that audiences will have trouble following it, let alone believing that any kid could’ve come up with it.

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As Fresh’s plan unfolds, the film’s attempts at realism are revealed as no more than jive-talking window dressing. Like any exploitation film, “Fresh” turns out to want nothing more than to titillate and make us gasp, and everything authentic in the film is sacrificed toward that end.

As violent scene follows violent scene, it is possible to notice how phony even the film’s painstakingly constructed macho dialogue starts to sound. And “Fresh’s” willingness to use legitimate social problems as nothing more than an excuse for cheap thrills gets increasingly off-putting. Fresh and his father may be able to push those chess pieces around at breakneck speed, but audiences will want to be treated with more respect.

* MPAA rating: R, for intense, realistic depiction of urban violence, and for drug content, pervasive language and some sexuality. Times guidelines: It includes several graphic murders, including those of three young children, and the on-camera hanging of a dog.

‘Fresh’

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Sean Nelson: Fresh

Giancarlo Esposito: Esteban

Samuel L. Jackson: Sam

N’Bushe Wright: Nichole

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Ron Brice: Corky

Jean LaMarre: Jake

A Lumiere production, released by Miramax Films. Director Boaz Yakin. Producers Lawrence Bender, Randy Ostrow. Executive producer Lila Cazes. Screenplay Boaz Yakin. Cinematographer Adam Holender. Editor Dorian Harris. Costumes Ellen Lutter. Music Stewart Copeland. Production design Dan Leigh. Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes.

* In limited release in Southern California.

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