Norman Loftis’ 1990 outing “Small Time” tracked a lowlife loser’s doomed descent in pungent but sympathetic New York neorealist terms. His new feature works a similar beat with more technical polish but a less refined cutting edge. Refashioning a “Bicycle Thief” riff around a young black family man’s attempts to stick to the straight and narrow, “Messenger” struggles under the weight of academic intent. Marginal fest dates look to be the limit.
In an upfront homage to Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 milestone, the drama of “Messenger” hinges on a stolen bicycle. A former petty criminal determined to provide legit support for his growing family, Jeff (Richard Barboza) lies about having a bike in order to land a job with a courier service. Reluctantly, he allows his pregnant wife, Tina (Carolyn Kinebrew), to pawn her wedding ring to buy one.
Once mobile, he works hard, embracing the do-right existence while Tina laughs off some mild derision from the girls in the hood, most of whom visit their men in the slammer. But a moment’s distraction leads to the bike being swiped. In strict De Sica style, a search ensues, most of it with Tina and their rapper chum John (Scott Ferguson) in tow, while frustration and hopelessness shove the already hotheaded Jeff increasingly off kilter.
Skillfully crafted within its no-budget frame (reportedly well under $ 100, 000), the dramatically intense scenario is stifled by excessive talkiness, without whipping up the anxiety necessary to convey the fact that survival, self-sufficiency and the salvation of the family unit all hang in the balance.
The three leads (all of them “Small Time” alumni) adopt a naturalistic approach that generally sits well, but in the most demanding role, Barboza doesn’t show the range to convincingly limn his character’s edge-of-violence/hysteria/breakdown behavior. Loftis appears as a civic-minded but ultimately ineffectual cop.