“Fresh” is the story of one young boy’s way out of the vicious circle of drug violence that defines the world in which he has grown up. Skillfully made and involving, first feature by Boaz Yakin stands to generate considerable controversy, not over its artistic qualities but in regard to its morality and positioning of a child as an instigator of widespread crime and bloodshed. Ensuing debate could lead to plenty of off-entertainment-page and chatshow attention, which, in addition to some top reviews, should give Miramax enough to nicely launch this French-financed pickup in April. How the mass public responds down the line is an open question.
Dismayingly unforgettable opening scenes show the black, 12-year-old Fresh (Sean Nelson) showing up late for school because he’s running behind on his morning rounds as a drug courier. Living with 11 female cousins in New York under the care of his Aunt Frances, Fresh keeps his own counsel as he delivers for local heroin kingpin Esteban (Giancarlo Esposito) and does freelance work for assorted sidewalk and backroom dealers.
As long as he stays straight and keeps quiet, Fresh has it made, as he’s smart, honest and, most important, too young to arouse suspicion. As one of his fond bosses tells him: “The only reason you ain’t the man, you too goddamned little. When you get bigger, you be the man.”
Although forbidden to see him, Fresh surreptitiously meets his father, Sam (the excellent Samuel L. Jackson), in Washington Square for sessions of speed chess. Apparently a brilliant near-derelict, Sam proves a tough taskmaster, lecturing Fresh about discipline and brutally upbraiding him for stupid moves and lack of concentration.
What chess has to do with the rest of Fresh’s life only slowly becomes apparent. In a shocking sequence, a pickup basketball game turns deadly as well-known crack dealer Jake (a very scary Jean LaMarre) shoots dead an opponent and also fatally wounds a little girl who’s sweet on Fresh.
A clear witness to the crimes, the taciturn Fresh can’t say anything to authorities if he wants to stay alive, but the incident begins turning the gears that result in the high-wire act of the last couple of reels.
Much like the leading character of Akira Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo,” Fresh cleverly begins pitting against each other all his employers, those responsible for the violence and death all around him. As the chess metaphor settles in, Fresh, through a series of lies, deceptions, tips and alibis, springs the traps into which all the evil adversaries will step and watches, impassively, as they do each other in.
As in any Western or crime film, there is a certain visceral satisfaction in seeing these ultrabad dudes get their just desserts, and “Fresh” will be embraced by some as a satisfying fictional portrait of how one kid outwitted the evil kings, rooks, bishops and knights at their own game.
But even while they are drawn in by the undeniably potent, even mesmerizing story, others will feel a queasiness about the spectacle of a little boy setting other people up for the kill. No matter how smart and sympathetic Fresh may be, he is still part of the problem, not the solution, in his extension of the drug-and-death cycle. Pic’s p.o.v. on this seems ambivalent but vaguely endorsing, allowing viewers to take up the issues while questioning the film’s presentation of them.
Still, Yakin has put some powerful drama up on the screen, and he has been assisted by no one more significantly than young Nelson, who plays Fresh. A blank slate much of the time, he seems to take everything in, storing up information and street smarts that he can finally use to his own advantage.
This portrait of a childhood both incredibly resourceful and tragically deprived is memorable in an era of numerous outstanding preteen performances, and the final image of Fresh cracking, for the first time, from the cumulative pressure of his life is indelible.
Performances are terrifically intense from top to bottom. Esposito is particularly riveting as the sinewy drug baron, and Ron Brice also scores as a rival dealer.
Producing team has made this look like a big, polished film on a no-doubt limited budget. Adam Holender’s lensing achieves a vividly colorful look on mostly ghetto locations, and Dorian Harris’ editing has real snap and verve. Eschewing a predictable rap soundtrack, Yakin recruited Stewart Copeland, whose varied score lends unexpected textures to the film but does become overblown at moments.