Much dross has been served up under the mockdoc moniker — especially since “The Blair Witch Project” became the most imitable indie ever — but “Gang Tapes” manages to pull off a conceit previously thought to be tapped-out in both theme and execution. Posited as the homevid tapings of a 13-year-old boy being gradually pulled into his Watts neighborhood’s criminal elements one summer, pic’s convincingly natural performances and faux-amateur presentation create a potent, nonjudgmental look at how violence breeds violence in one underprivileged community.
Marketing will be a challenge, as raw approach works against the melodramatic satisfactions of most post-“Boyz N the Hood” black actioners. Also problematic is the fact that this grim, often brutal portrait of contempo African-American urban life was directed and penned by Caucasians.
Nevertheless, “Gang Tapes” packs more than enough nonexploitative punch to merit play beyond the fest circuit. Theatrical roll-out will require careful, community-based outreach, with ancillary exposure somewhat more assured.
First-time director Adam Ripp (who produced Bryan Singer’s pre- “Usual Suspects” first feature, “Public Access”) and co-scenarist Stephen Wolfson assembled their screenplay after a long process of interviewing gang members, their families and L.A. Police Dept. authorities, with much dialogue and character input from a largely nonpro cast. Result has the ring of unvarnished truth, even if pic’s last stretch may strike some as overblown.
Setting up the premise that what we see is unedited (though, it must be said, damn pacey) real-life vidcam footage, initial sequence consists of banal L.A. tourist highlights shot by a middle-class white family on vacation from the Heartland. They soon blunder into the wrong neighborhood, however, and become victims of a carjacking at gunpoint — with said camera ending up in the hands of young Kris (15-year-old newcomer Trivell), who is marginally involved in the drug and stolen goods trade of Alonzo (Darris Love).
Kris has a fairly stable home life, though he’s fatherless, and his mother (nicely played by Sonja Marie) has her hands full. She misses early signs that Kris may have found a bad mentor in Alonzo.
Latter is an upstanding citizen, however, compared to his accomplice Cyril (Darontay McClendon), whom he and Kris pick up from jail. They haven’t even driven home yet when the burly, volatile Cyril spies an enemy on the sidewalk. He promptly beats this unlucky passer-by senseless with a crowbar, in broad daylight.
Initiated into the older men’s gang, Kris first suffers a vigorous beating himself, then is promptly whisked along to witness a drive-by killing. Capping the wild night, he loses his virginity at a party. (Prankishly bypassing an explicit scene, pic finds Kris’ camera blinking “low battery” and going dark just as the bedroom action heats up.)
Later, he gets to shoot a handgun in a male-bonding interlude with Cyril. Latter chillingly confides his own history of violence, from childhood on, in feature’s longest single take.
“Gang Tapes'” strength lies in contrasting gangsta lifestyle segs with others that show the normal life protag unknowingly is leaving behind. We can see Kris is still very much a child, eager to imitate and win approval from whatever adults are available.
While fairly packed with incident, feature maintains its illusion of you-are-there immediacy until the one-hour point, when a horrific home-invasion assault ratchets up the shock quotient a bit too zestfully.
From then on, violent repercussions arise almost nonstop, ending in a final tragedy that would carry more weight if it didn’t cap an already overloaded closing reel.
By compressing so many worst-scenario incidents in its windup, “Gang Tapes” comes close to deflating a hitherto sound grasp on situational authenticity. Some viewers may find even the earlier progress too relentless and depressing, though filmmakers do balance that impact with just enough offhand tenderness and humor.
Fortunately, overall package is too strong to be sunk by last act’s overkill, with improv-based dialogue, excellent perfs and location shooting around Watts and South-Central L.A. all lending verite pretense considerable punch. Lensing is willfully erratic, cuts abrupt, though there’s subtle accommodation to general tastes in editing that’s rough-surfaced but quite brisk and crafty in effect. Aptly, there’s no soundtrack music (apart from that heard on boom boxes) until final credit crawl.