96 MINUTES | movie review via New Orleans Film Festival

96 Minutes is a festival gem.  With the films screening in competition, you never really walk in sure of what you’ll get; like Forest Gump’s box of chocolate, sometimes the film’s a truffle and other times it’s a coconut macaroon (and you hate coconut).  I went into 96 Minutes almost blind—I read the blurb but did not watch the trailer.  The screening was at 9:50 on Saturday, day 2 of NOFF 2011, and the theater was maybe half-full, which is a shame because this movie is powerful. 

I knew going in that it was about four teenagers who get tangled together in a way that “will change their lives forever,” which is an apt, if vague, description.  The movie is about a car-jacking gone wrong, and the 96 minutes the two boys who kidnapped the two girls spend together.

The storytelling reminded me of Crash, a little.  It isn’t trying to draw connections between unrelated stories, but it uses a similar fragmented method of showing a scene in the “present” and then a scene from earlier to slowly bring the four characters together from that morning to those 96 minutes.  I thought this method of telling the story worked especially well for this scenario, because it keeps the movie from being two disparate halves (a where-is-this-going? introduction and then an hour of driving around in a car with a gun being waved about) and instead keeps the tension of the “present” storyline high by splitting it up with the quotidian dramas that began the day.  Splitting between past and present also forces you to have some degree of sympathy for each of the characters—although one of the boys is decidedly less than sympathetic even after you see where he comes from—and to share their hope of finding a way out and feel with them the growing existential dread as they realize this night cannot possibly end well…that nothing can go back the way it was.

The movie was filmed entirely in and around Atlanta, but it had enough money and Hollywood connections behind it to have a high production value, by which I mean, it is not obviously an independent film except for the lack of well-known actors.  And the acting was good; these kids are definitely up-and-comers.  The two girls are played by Brittany Snow (who looks damn familiar to me, though I can’t place her from her movie credits list) and Christian Serratos (who is best known right now for playing Angela in the Twilight movies, though she has done other films as well).  The boys are Evan Ross (whose most recent credit is from 90210 redux but has many others) and J. Michael Trautmann.  David Oyelowo also has a powerful role as a member of the boys’ community who is not part of the gang culture, whose storyline also folds into the main story by the end (his story arc is the most like Crash’s “everything is connected” style). The depiction of life in a bad neighborhood could have drifted into the realm of parody, but I didn’t feel like it did.

Ross’s character, Dre, is the heart of the film.  He is the one in the driver’s seat (literally and figuratively), and his story arc is a true tragic hero’s.  He has chance after chance to shift the outcome of the night, and his fatal flaw is that he is too afraid of losing control of the situation to actively try to change the course of events.  Looking back with him from the end, we can see all the moments where his choice not to act was as much an action as anything he could have done, and cry to think of what might have been if he had seen that truth then.

I can’t say enough good things about this film.  The pacing struck the right balance between past and present, the acting was affecting and effective, the editing was tight, the story could easily have been hard to follow but was in fact quite perfectly fitted together, the tension was high, the results of the night were heartbreaking.  Perhaps best of all was the fact that, though the movie didn’t shy away from tragedy, it also didn’t end on a hopeless note.  The film has a second screening at NOFF on Sunday evening, and I expect this movie will be getting picked up for other festivals and probably a theatrical distribution at some point.  It’s definitely worth the watch if you like real-life dramas that go for a worst-case scenario without any melodrama.  The movie is fraught with tension, dread, and the hope that things will somehow be okay, even as you rationally know they can’t be.