The personal doesn’t feel especially persuasive in “Straight Outta Tompkins,” 22-year-old writer-director-star Zephyr Benson’s semi-autobiographical drama about the relentless downward spiral of a teenage junkie/dealer adrift on the Lower East Side. Imagining what might have happened if his own youthful experiences using and selling drugs had taken a much darker, more extreme turn, Benson displays more energy and assurance behind the camera than he does in front of it; even still, his tonal command of his own narrative is wobbly at best, employing cynical humor and climactic eruptions of violence to jazz up what is ultimately an overly earnest and predictable cautionary tale. Although not without promise, the film (which opened March 6 in limited release) likely proved more cathartic for its maker than it will be for those who seek it out.
A scene in which young Gene (Benson) tries to fill out a life-goals questionnaire provides a handy if repetitive framing device for the drama of a high schooler from New York whose near-total abandonment by his family left him fatally ill equipped for adulthood. After the untimely death of his mother, his father left the country to start a new life and family in Thailand; his older sister didn’t stick around for much longer. Gene now spends most of his time playing baseball, with an eye toward earning a college scholarship, and hanging out with his rowdy best friend, Ivan (Adonis Rodriguez). Before long they’re baking pot-filled cupcakes and selling them to their classmates, their business savvy eventually leading them to the doorstep of a frighteningly charismatic dealer named Cruz (Aaron Costa Ganis).
Ivan wants nothing to do with Cruz’s operation, but Gene, although wary at first, is more easily lured in — to some degree by necessity, especially after his landlady (uncredited Whoopi Goldberg) threatens to call social services if he doesn’t cough up the thousands of dollars his father owes in back rent. Left with nowhere to go, Gene moves in with Cruz and his associates, who quickly accept him into their ranks. Life is good for a while as Gene, typically seen with his long, dark curls poking out from under a beanie, takes his place in the supply-and-demand chain — pushing everything from Adderall to heroin, while mobilizing a small army of cute girls (the ones most likely to get away with anything) to help him move large quantities of cash. Naturally, it’s only a matter of time before he gets hooked on his own product, while sudden shockwaves of rival-gang violence threaten to derail their lucrative operation.
Benson doesn’t seek to emulate the stylistic dazzle and filmmaking chutzpah of a Martin Scorsese (a goal that has eluded far more seasoned filmmakers), but his fitfully engaging work does owe a clear debt to the master’s Gotham-set gangland dramas. There’s an element of “Goodfellas” (an acknowledged influence) in the way “Straight Outta Tompkins” traces the rise and fall of a self-narrating protagonist, laced with astute satirical/sociological insights into the realities of the trade — most memorably, the all-too-relevant fact that cops routinely round up black teens on street corners, oblivious to the lighter-skinned but much more egregious offenders like Gene in their midst. But these rueful observations don’t feel smoothly integrated into the overly ambitious yarn, and they feel particularly at odds with the over-the-top bloodshed that awaits in the film’s heavy-handed third act.
The director has made clear the numerous differences between his own relatively tame (if still harrowing) experience and that of his alter ego — not least the fact that Benson, as the son of actor-singer-director Robby Benson and singer-actress Karla DeVito, doesn’t share Gene’s orphan status. It’s an important distinction, and one that may partly explain why “Straight Outta Tompkins” feels a tad facile as it paves the way toward tragedy, carefully eliminating or nullifying all the authority figures in Gene’s life — including the unscrupulous Catholic headmaster (Cliff Bemis) who agrees to look past the kid’s illicit activities to avoid endangering his baseball scholarship. A more fundamental problem is that Benson, with his sleepy-eyed, slackerish demeanor, never fully achieves the dramatic stature necessary to make Gene a compelling antihero. It almost doesn’t help that Costa Ganis is such a dangerously fascinating screen presence by comparison; when his character disappears for a lengthy stretch, he almost takes your attention with him.
As one would expect from a movie whose title riffs on NWA’s “Straight Outta Compton” (also the name of the forthcoming biopic), the DeVito-supervised soundtrack offers wall-to-wall hip-hop. Given the reported budget of $160,000 — reportedly left over from Benson’s tuition after he dropped out of NYU at the age of 18 — the film’s tech credits are remarkably pro. D.p. Brandon Roots’ atmospheric lensing achieves a high-resolution crispness that looked terrific even when covered by three digital watermarks on the screener supplied for review.