Sixteen-year-old Starr has two “r’s” in her name, and two realities in her life.
Reality One: She lives in Garden Heights, an impoverished, predominantly African-American neighborhood in an unnamed but readily familiar U.S. city.
Reality Two: Along with her older half-brother Seven (Lamar Johnson) and her 10-year-old brother Sekani (TJ Wright), Starr attends the posh and privileged and predominantly white Williamson Prep. (Her parents have made myriad sacrifices to make this happen.)
When Starr is at Williamson, she wears the school uniform and she makes sure not to use any slang, lest she be identified as the “poor girl from the hood.” She grins and bears it when her white friends appropriate black culture and call her “girl” and dance to hip-hop as if they’ve discovered it. Her boyfriend, the earnest but oh-so preppy Chris (K.J. Apa), looks and sounds like the son of the romantic hero in “Sixteen Candles.”
When Starr is home, she’s not entirely comfortable there, either. From an early age, she has seen firsthand what drugs and gangs and violence and racism can do to a family member, to a friend, to those you love the most. When she goes to a party where booze is flowing and some of the attendees are affiliated with gangs, it’s almost as if she’s counting the minutes until she can go home.
We get the sense it’s only a matter of time before Starr’s worlds collide — and when that happens, it will have an enormous impact on Starr, and on just about everyone she cares about.
MORE FROM RICHARD ROEPER
“The Hate U Give” is a powerful, relevant, earnest and sometimes absolutely heartbreaking instant time capsule — a fictional but wholly authentic slice of American life in the 2010s.
Directed by George Tillman Jr. (“Soul Food,” “Notorious”) with a screenplay by Audrey Wells (who passed away just last week) and based on the mega-selling Young Adult novel by Angie Thomas, “The Hate U Give” is indeed a message movie, and yes, there are a few times when certain characters come close to becoming caricatures. But those are minor drawbacks to a story filled with immediacy and urgency but also so much heart and soul.
And love. Family love.
Nearly everything that happens in “The Hate U Give” centers on or is filtered through the viewpoint of Starr. The movie leans heavily on Amandla Stenberg’s work as the smart and caring and deeply conflicted Starr, and Ms. Stenberg comes through with a brilliant, natural and immensely effective performance.
We get equally strong performances from a number of supporting players, including Russell Hornsby as Starr’s father, Maverick, an ex-con who now owns a neighborhood grocery store and is determined to be a positive role model for his children; Regina Hall as Starr’s mother, Lisa, who will do anything to protect the family; Common, as Starr’s Uncle Carlos, a police officer who has to explain certain hard facts of life to Starr, and Anthony Mackie as King, the leader of the gang that controls the streets of Garden Heights.
After a white officer shoots and kills an unarmed black teenager who was close to Starr, and it appears as if the cop might not even be charged with a crime, Starr finds herself in the middle of an increasingly tense and ultimately dangerous dilemma.
Her white classmates at Williamson Prep stage a walkout and wield “Black Lives Matter” signs, but they seem more enthused about having an excuse to get out of school than troubled by the tragedy. When Starr’s boyfriend says he doesn’t see color when he looks at her, she tells him if he doesn’t see her race, he’s not seeing her at all.
In the meantime, an activist attorney (Issa Rae) is urging Starr to come forward and testify against the officer, even as King threatens violent retribution for Starr and her family if she says too much about what she knows.
Director Tillman has an excellent touch for the quietly impactful scenes with Starr and her family, as well as the news footage-style depictions of marches and protests that go sideways, with tear gas flying in the air and cops pinning down protesters — as well as some protesters using the moment as an excuse to set cars on fire and destroy local businesses.
Yet the film never loses sight of the girl who only wants to go to school, spend time with her family and friends, have a boyfriend, prepare for college and just be sixteen — but doesn’t have the option and probably never had that option from the moment she was born.
‘The Hate U Give’
20th Century Fox presents a film directed by George Tillman Jr. and written by Audrey Wells. Rated PG-13 (for mature thematic elements, some violent content, drug material and language). Running time: 132 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.