"Zebrahead" sounds so familiar. Doesn't it almost have to be an earnest movie about inner city woe, crime, a tide of crack and gangs, the accumulated grief of a couple of centuries' worth of oppression as played out upon a generation of children, like "South Central"or "Boyz N the Hood"? Noble yet just a trifle boring truthful yet almost banal.
It's none of these things, and just as you know nothing about a man by the color of his skin, you know nothing about "Zebrahead" unless you've seen it. It's not set in an inner city at all, but in a previously untapped milieu, an "older suburb" miles from downtown, where a declining economy and changing demographic patterns have brought new groups into contact with each other. I thought of Evanston, Ill.; or Towson; the setting happens to be just outside Detroit.
Our hero is Zack, who walks the walk and talks the talk of African-American culture, except that he's white. He's a yo-boy, a wannabe, whose cultural blackness has been nurtured by a hipster father comfortable in the black world (Dad -- Ray Sharkey -- runs a progressive record store; jazz and be-bop are his things). Zack's best friend is black. In fact, the sweetness of the relationship between Zack and Dee (DeShonn Castle) is one of the most wonderful things in the movie, so natural and easy does it feel.
But as black as Zack thinks he is, and as hard as everyone tries to behave with respect toward everyone else, the law laid down by William Butler Yeats ultimately and tragically prevails: Things fall apart.
The overlay is "Romeo and Juliet." Zack happens to meet Dee's cousin, Nikki (N'Bushe Wright) just out from New York. It's typical of the anti-romantic approach of writer-director Anthony Drazan that he nurtures this transracial romance slowly, a step and a joke and a laugh at a time. There's no earth moving or bells sounding, there's just the slow motion of kids seeing each other as kids first and lovers second.
Drazan has a wonderful ear for teen language -- he actually did research in a suburban New York high school to try and find the hidden rhythms of their language. But he's careful not to reduce them to symbols alone; though each carries a higher meaning, the kids nevertheless stay characters throughout, as they edge their way toward true feelings and ultimate tragedy.
Of course the sick reality is that neither the African-American nor the Jewish American is quite ready for so simple a thing as love between their members.
Zack takes Nikki to a party on one of the upscale streets, and again, everybody tries so hard to be good and do good, but a tongue loosened by too much beer utters a stupid remark and the whole thing teeters out of control. And on the other side,
there are difficulties too: Nut (Ron Johnson), the movie's Tybalt, is gravely offended that Nikki has chosen a white and not him to be her companion.
The movie winds toward tragedy but also toward hope. Without putting to fine an edge on it, it carefully manipulates its players toward two images of the future: black and white locked in struggle, or black and white, locked in a forgiving embrace. It says: You chose. No one else can.
Starring Michael Rappaport and N'Bushe Wright.
Directed by Anthony Drazan.
Released by Tri-Star.