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‘Canal Street’: A Chicago crime story, sharply made, sadly familiar

After moving from the South Side to the North Shore, Kholi (Bryshere Y. Gray) is charged with murder in “Canal Street.”

After moving from the South Side to the North Shore, Kholi (Bryshere Y. Gray) is charged with murder in “Canal Street.” SMITH GLOBAL MEDIA

“Murders happen every day in Chicago, [but] when it happens outside the city, it’s front-page news [in the] Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times.” – Radio talk show host in “Canal Street.”

The victim is a white teenager from Winnetka who drove a BMW to school every day and seemed to have not a care in the world.

The accused is a black teenager from 83rd and Ingleside who has only recently moved to the North Shore and was known to hang around with some hardcore troublemakers.

When police arrived on the scene of the crime, they found the black kid kneeling over the victim, covered in the victim’s blood.

Open-and-shut case. Or is it?

Depends on which Chicago radio hosts you listen to. Depends on which editorials you read. Depends on which community leaders you believe in.

And oh yes: it also depends on the actual facts of the case.

Director and co-writer Rhyan LaMarr’s made-in-Chicago indie film “Canal Street” is a work of fiction, but it contains so many essential truths, so many recognizable situations and characters, so many (sadly) familiar moments of heartache, it rings as true as a documentary.

And thanks in no small part to the universally excellent performances from an ensemble cast filled with talented veterans and promising relative newcomers, this is the kind of intense and authentic viewing experience you won’t soon forget.

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Bryshere Y. Gray (“Empire”) delivers powerful, heartfelt work as 16-year-old Kholi Styles, who has just moved to the posh suburbs with his attorney father, Jackie (Mykelti Williamson), after Jackie has taken a high-paying position with an upscale firm. (Kholi’s beloved mother died years ago.)

Kholi has an eventful first few days at school. The low point: getting popped in the face on the basketball court by a smug, trash-talking, Zac Efron-looking white kid named Brian (Kevin Quinn). The high point: meeting and striking up a possible romance with a girl from Humboldt Park named Zoey (Juani Feliz), who immediately recognizes Kholi is so much more than just the supposedly derogatory “South Side” label some classmates have immediately attached to him.

Surprisingly, it appears as if Kholi and Brian might actually become friends after they have some frank discussions about race and white privilege and cultural differences — but then a shot rings out in the night, and a white kid is dead, and the black kid from the South Side is charged with his murder.

“Canal Street” bounces back (sometimes unnecessarily so) on the timeline, as we flash forward to various radio hosts (including real-life local personalities such as Mancow and Kendra G.) and TV talkers debating the murder trial before we see the actual crime take place.

We’re also introduced to a wide-ranging cast of characters, all of whom will eventually be connected to the case, including:

• Mekhi Phifer as the district attorney and mayoral hopeful A.J. Canton, who takes the lead in prosecuting Kholi, much to the consternation of longtime friends and associates in the community.

• Harry Lennix as Terrance Palmer, a veteran radio talk show host with some insightful views on the case.

• Nora Dunn and William R. Moses as the victim’s devastated parents. (There’s a heartbreaking scene when the father starts going through his son’s things, with the intention of donating some belongings to charity — and the mother has a different plan for these items.)

• Jamie Hector as a popular preacher at a megachurch who has an unexpected encounter with the victim’s father.

• Jon Seda as a detective who starts digging into the case, ruffling more than a few feathers along the way.

• Katie Chang as the victim’s girlfriend, who identifies Kholi as the shooter.

Director and co-writer LaMarr does a fine job of cutting back and forth to the various storylines, and connecting them when the moment is right. Along the way, he implements some nice touches, e.g., when Zoey tells Kholi she learned accordion as a little girl, we see home-movie-style footage of her as a child, and when a barber talks about the times when Harold Washington would come in to the shop, we cut to newsreel footage of the late mayor.

We get a few too many of the media commentary segments, but there ARE some classic moments, as when six talking heads are lined up in little boxes on the TV screen. A conservative commentator maintains, “They do not put people in prison for nothing,” and another panelist immediately jumps in and says, “What! Where have YOU been for the past 200 years?”

Like just about every other moment in “Canal Street,” we have no trouble believing something like that would transpire in real life.

‘Canal Street’

1⁄2

Smith Golden Media presents a film directed by Rhyan LaMarr and written by LaMarr, Jon Knitter and Adam Key. Rated PG-13 (for thematic elements including some bloody images, drug use and teen partying). Running time: 95 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.