Craig Ross Jr.'s "Blue Hill Avenue" departs dramatically from the standard ghetto drug action picture to offer a somber, grueling look at the day-to-day existence of four friends in the Boston area who get caught up in the drug trade in junior high school. This is a demanding, intelligent film of considerable complexity and of sufficient seriousness to justify its 128-minute running time.
Twelve years after starting in the business, they are successful, having graduated from peddling marijuana to crack cocaine, but their lives are scarcely worth living. They dress well and have financial security, but they are constantly on guard. They live in fear of competitors and betrayers, and the necessity for continual wheeling and dealing leaves scarce time for anything else. Once the youths are shunted onto the wrong track they never again seem to get a chance to enjoy themselves or anything or anyone else. The film's one sex scene is motivated more by opportunism than lust.
Yet "Blue Hill Avenue" is more engrossing than didactic. It's the fall of 1979, and Benny (Clarence Williams III) observes a brawl between two groups of boys and has his henchman recruit the victors to peddle marijuana at school. Their leader is Tristan (Allen Payne), smart and resilient, who has strong backup from the burly Simon (Michael "Bear" Taliferro) plus two loyal minions, Money (Aaron D. Spears) and E-Bone (William Johnson). Tristan comes from a solid middle-class background but is as susceptible to easy money as the others. He's driven by the challenge of getting away with it. For a long time Tristan will dodge acknowledging his responsibility in devastating his community with drugs.
Twelve years pass, with the advent of crack escalating risks along with profits, and Tristan begins to want "to get back my life." As countless weary gangsters before him have discovered, that's not so easy, but not merely because of the usual underworld entanglements: He has a need to prove to Benny that the crime kingpin does not own him.
With Carl Bartles' fluid, moody cinematography, "Blue Hill Avenue" plays out in brooding fashion, with many complications, all credible and some darkly ironic. It is well-sustained by a large ensemble cast headed by Payne as the coldly charismatic Tristan, who is strong and self-aware enough not to offer excuses for his life. With several features behind him, Ross is clearly a skilled storyteller, and "Blue Hill Avenue," given its subject matter, effectively confounds expectations.
'Blue Hill Avenue'
MPAA rating: R for strong violence, language, drug content and sexuality
Times guidelines: Too intense for pre-adolescents
Allen Payne ... Tristan
Clarence Williams III ... Benny
William Johnson ... E-Bone
Michael (Bear) Taliferro ... Simon
Aaron D. Spears ... Money
An Artisan Entertainment presentation of a Cahoots Prods./Asiatic Associates co-production. Writer-director-editor Craig Ross Jr. Producers Brian (Killa B) Hinds, Mike Erwin, J. Max Kirishima. Executive producers Rand Chortkoff, Craig Ross Jr. Cinematographer Carl Bartles. Music Jan Pomerans and Cruel Timothy. Costumes Lauda Swan. Production designer/art director Heather Young. Set decorator Kyle Hutchison. Running time: 2 hours, 8 minutes.
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