Despite the over-familiarity of its once-trendy time-tripping plot structure, “96 Minutes” maintains a brisk pace and generates a satisfying degree of suspense with its credibly contrived tale of disparate lives forever changed by a violent carjacking. Pic also boasts strong performances by well-cast up-and-comers, though its lack of star power, per se, likely will limit theatrical prospects. On the other hand, high-profile TV and film credits of some players may attract the interest of vid renters and cable viewers.
Working from her own script, first-time feature helmer Aimee Lagos displays a talent for brisk character definition and a sharp eye for class and racial divides. Better still, she has a deft way of keeping things coherent while juggling subplots and timeframes.
Pic kicks off with an attention-grabbing outburst of amped-up hysteria – two carjackers speed through the streets of Atlanta while their victims, one of them seriously wounded, cower in the backseat — then jumps back and forth in time, simultaneously following the ongoing drama and detailing the events preceding it.
Dre (Evan Ross), an affable but self-determined black high schooler, appears poised to transcend his hard-scrabble life in a gang-infested neighborhood. Unfortunately, he’s much too loyal to a white buddy, Kevin (J. Michael Trautmann), an abused teen whose simmering rage has been stoked by his addiction to violent videogames.
Kevin is dangerously eager to join a group of gang-bangers in their neighborhood, and Dre is powerless to dissuade him. Nor can Dre do much but go along for the ride and try to calm his friend down after Kevin steals a car at gunpoint from two white college co-eds.
Carly (Brittany Snow), a rich girl reluctantly bound for law school, and Lena (Christian Serratos), recently stung by a cheating boyfriend, are the young women in the wrong place at the wrong time. After Lena is wounded by the trigger-happy Kevin, Carly desperately struggles to keep her friend alive and bargain for their release.
“96 Minutes” sustains interest through shrewd counterpoint, shifting between frantic exchanges inside the car and glimpses of more low-key (but often ominous) events leading up to the wild ride. There’s also effective contrasting of the lives of the central characters: Prior to the carjacking, the college students appear limited only by their self-doubts and timidity, while Dre struggles against assumptions that he’s just another hoodlum from the hood.
Ross, who recently earned praise for his work in the indie drama “Mooz-lum,” vividly conveys the conflicting impulses that drive the basically decent but morally compromised Dre. Snow (currently on view in TV’s “Harry’s Law”) impressively communicates Carly’s nimble intelligence even during moments of mounting desperation, and knocks the tricky final scene right out the ballpark. Christian Serratos (aka Angela Weber of the “Twilight” franchise) is aptly heartrending, and David Oyelowo makes the most of his scenes as a Good Samaritan whose motives are unfairly questioned. But it’s Trautmann who makes the most memorable impact with his frightening, unpredictable turn.
Michael Fimognari’s resourceful lensing on locations in and around Atlanta is a major plus.