Matty Rich struggles through the sophomore jinx in “The Inkwell,” a conventionally plotted, often buffoonish coming-of-age tale that nevertheless imparts a distinctive flavor. Both the storyline and the filmmaking are routine, even awkward at times, but this look at an upscale black enclave on Martha’s Vineyard, circa 1976, unarguably provides a window on an aspect of the black experience that neither black nor white audiences have seen before.
Disney won’t be able to use reviews to help sell this one, and it’s not funny enough to market it as an outright comedy, so only B.O. chances rest with blacks on the lookout for something different and possibly with crossover teen viewers.
The youthful Rich, who scored at Sundance a couple of years back with the heartfelt, autobiographical “Straight Out of Brooklyn,” about the difficulties of family life in the projects, goes far afield from his own background for this odd, mixed-tone outing that, at its embarrassing worst, plays like a combo of “Summer of ’42” and “Porky’s,” but at other moments has a curious cultural poignance.
After accidentally burning down his parents’ house, 16-year-old Drew Tate (Larenz Tate) is taken from his lower-middle-class Upstate New York environs to spend two weeks with relatives on Martha’s Vineyard. His parents — Kenny (Joe Morton), a still-militant former Black Panther, and Brenda — are concerned about their boy’s social awkwardness and infantile behavior (he always carries around a little doll he talks to), a problem put in greater relief when they arrive in Massachusetts.
Drew’s uncle Spencer (Glynn Turman) and aunt Francis (Vanessa Bell Calloway) are so Republican that they even keep a portrait of Richard Nixon on the wall of their opulent beachside home. Their teenage son (Duane Martin) is a self-styled ladies’ man who tools around with two loutish buddies and tries to provoke poor Drew to come on to every girl they see.
Anyone who enjoyed the hilarious mid-1970s art direction and costumes in “Dazed and Confused” will get a double dose of pleasure here, as the Inkwell, a section of the island inhabited by affluent blacks, offers up a wonderful collection of “Soul Train” fashions and blinding color schemes, all in an anachronistically genteel setting.
While the two older men argue politics, Jr. and his stooges lead Drew on some silly escapades, such as to a nudist beach. On his own, Drew befriends Heather (Adrienne-Joi Johnson), a nice lady whose husband, Drew discovers, is flagrantly cheating on her. He also spends a lovely day and night with the town’s reigning teen beauty Lauren (Jada Pinkett), leading him to develop some far-reaching romantic fantasies. A la “Summer of ’42,” things work out for Drew, but not in the way he anticipated.
The unusual cultural backdrop to the side, the story’s unfolding is routine, as it’s packed with the sort of teenage pranks, emotional shocks and dawning recognitions that rep the usual baggage of the coming-of-age genre. Nor does Rich stage the comedy very well, so that when the laughs don’t come, there’s a lot of unwanted dead air hanging about.
Similarly, the disputes among the adults are handled in an over-the-top, ham-fisted way, particularly when it involves the manically caricatured Spencer, who sports a cigarette holder and struts about, in Turman’s mugging performance, as if he owns the secret of the world because he’s managed to separate himself from other blacks.
Pic’s dullest moments, which could profitably be excised and bring the running time down in the process, involve Drew’s completely uninteresting therapy with a local lady doctor.
Still, despite all the missteps, predictability and general clunkiness, there’s a certain sweetness behind the story and its handling that elicits viewer sympathy and goodwill. It’s also nice to see a broadening of the range of black stories on the screen, and this one certainly takes audiences to a destination never before visited.
Newcomer Larenz Tate has a nice, easy, open presence as Drew, while remainder of the cast is proficient.
Project’s schizophrenia can largely be ascribed to its screenwriting history. Credited co-scenarist Tom Ricostronza is a pseudonym for Trey Ellis, black novelist who removed his name from the project once Rich and new writer Paris Qualles moved too far away from his original, more dramatic, intentions.
Actually shot in Swansboro, N.C., rather than on Martha’s Vineyard, pic boasts nice settings but a rather garish look. Rich still has quite a ways to go to become a sophisticated filmmaker, but the second feature is often the hardest.
Next time out will be the occasion to make a real jump.