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Review: ‘The Bronx, USA’ paints a positive past and a bright future for the New York borough

DeWitt Clinton High School students Danielle and Estefany embrace in the documentary “The Bronx, USA.”
DeWitt Clinton High School students Danielle, left, and Estefany in the documentary “The Bronx, USA.”
(HBO)

Depression-era spunk meets 21st century spirit in Danny Gold’s documentary “The Bronx, USA,” a lighthearted ode to New York City’s northernmost borough — home to the Yankees and the birthplace of hip-hop — and the kinds of friendships forged from a working-class childhood that can last a lifetime.

Gold’s last film was the cheery, legend-studded celebration of making the most out of your 90s, “If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast.” That film’s narrator, Bronx-born nonagenarian Carl Reiner, is one link — with son Rob reminiscing about his old neighborhood’s sense of community — but the primary connection is returning producer and storied Hollywood talent manager George Shapiro, whose on-camera trek back to his stomping grounds with a couple of childhood friends in tow is the nostalgia through-line upon which Gold hangs this sprightly urban travelogue.

Famous interviewees past a certain age (Chazz Palminteri, Hal Linden, Melissa Manchester) paint a picture of a Jewish/Italian enclave where stickball, delis and extended families ruled. Alan Alda talks falling in love while at Fordham, Colin Powell remembers a kindly Jewish toy store owner pushing him to make something of himself and various musicians including Grandmaster Melle Mel describe how hip-hop and salsa grew out of a lively cultural scene. (The less said the better about the cutesy rap-meets-Broadway opening number performed by comedian Robert Klein and stage actor Donald Webber Jr. Suffice to say Lin-Manuel Miranda has nothing to worry about.)

At times there’s a cloyingly naive “it ain’t like it used to be” vibe to the mom-and-pop recollections — but then, poverty, neglect, institutional racism and pinched opportunity will do that to a place where immigrants are trying to fit in. It’s perhaps not surprising that the Bronx’s “war zone” years of the 1970s are quickly skimmed over, but that’s mostly because Gold eagerly offers up an optimistic counternarrative to the reminiscences by following a multiracial group of close-knit seniors from the Bronx’s DeWitt Clinton High School. They’re an endearing bunch who show plenty of pluck, smarts, camaraderie and aspiration to go with their often pressurized economic circumstances, which include, in one promising student’s instance, her family getting evicted.

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Gold brings these youngsters and DeWitt alumni Shapiro’s 80-something “Bronx Boys” together at the end for an across-the-generations gathering at the school, and it’s a sweet exchange. The kids receive some lived-in wisdom about not letting anybody talk them out of their dreams, while the oldsters get to feel like their hometown is in good hands. As metaphors for America go, it might just put a hopeful smile on your face after another stomach-churning political news day.

'The Bronx, USA'
Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 23 minutes

Playing: Starts Oct. 25, Laemmle Glendale; available Oct. 30 on HBO


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