As an in-your-face evocation of what it’s like to be young and stuck living in an urban combat zone, “New Jersey Drive” could scarcely be more vivid and immediate. In his second feature, Nick Gomez has created a startlingly fresh portrait of the street culture, of casually criminal teenagers who habitually steal cars for joy rides. At the same time, lack of a discernible point of view on this out-of-control lawlessness and mayhem until the final minutes is a nagging problem throughout, leaving the viewer nowhere to lodge his concerns or sympathies. Crackling work is bound to cause considerable talk and possible controversy, and a throbbing hip-hop soundtrack will help draw urban teens and a portion of the black filmgoing public. But potential crossover audiences will as likely as not be turned off by this heavy dose of nihilism.
Gomez’s very low-budget first film, “Laws of Gravity,” did no business but attracted critical attention for its visceral camera style and evident street smarts. Working on a considerably better-funded scale with the support of exec producer Spike Lee but under what had to be difficult conditions, Gomez has fashioned a tough film that will frankly scare the hell out of most people by serving up their worst urban nightmare as a dream come true, a world where random crime is a lifestyle and nothing-to-lose kids respect nothing and no one.
At the center of things is Jason (Sharron Corley), a black teenager who lives with his mother and sister in the toughest part of Newark and hangs with a crowd whose main diversion is stealing cars (which they can do in about 20 seconds) and taking them for wild rides before abandoning them or trading them in.
At the outset, Jason is being locked up in a detention hall; his narration takes the film back to the summer night that set him on the road to the slammer. While he’s out joy-riding with two buddies, the cops, on a stakeout that more resembles a turkey shoot, blow a hole in their tire and proceed to shoot one of the kids, critically injuring him.
Jason is put on probation and is later roughed up by blatant bad cop Roscoe (Saul Stein), who then warns him not to get any ideas about talking to a grand jury.
Lying to his mother about his activities and spouting off to her b.f. that “I don’t need no daddy,” Jason mostly follows the lead of his closest friend, a shaven-headed wise guy named Midget (Gabriel Casseus) who seems to need to steal cars the way a junkie needs a fix. They hang with other guys on the street, try to unload one car at a chop shop and, in their most audacious act, steal a cop car and then pull over a jeep filled with white boys and toy with them for a while.
All along, there are signs that Jason is a shade smarter than his buddies and there is little doubt that, under different circumstances and influences, he would never even have considered committing crimes. But this is the world he was born into and, peer pressure being what it is, he willingly goes along, even though he seems to know that what they’re doing is going to get them nowhere.
The conflict between the local hoods and the cops escalates into a war neither side can win, although Roscoe has a thing for Jason, threatening him time and again and beating him when possible. But Jason also runs into trouble with a crazy local kid who comes after him with a gun in response to a meaningless insult. At this point, one can only wonder why Jason sticks around instead of hopping the next train to Manhattan; he might not have anything there , but in Newark he’s a dead man.
Anyone watching all this with a reasonable degree of objectivity will probably find their feelings and sympathies jarred in any number of directions during the course of the picture: That what these guys do is so stupid and irresponsible that they deserve whatever they get; that the fascist cops are worse than the petty criminals, so you can’t blame the kids for what they do; that, to the contrary, the cops deserve credit for trying to cope with an impossible assignment; that the parents who try to keep their children in line and in school are in the most futile position of all; and that the women in the community seem uniformly more intelligent and sensible than any of the men.
Ultimately, the film comes down on the side of the only sensible solution to the horrendous cycle of violence and hopelessness as presented herein: Get the hell out if you can. But that will hardly serve as a remedy for most people or an edifying analysis of the real roots of the problem.
Pic’s strongest suit is its realism. The street-level perspective is so grittily represented that one gets a definite idea of what it is to be trapped in this soul-withering environment. On the verbal side, much of the dialogue is so up-to-the-minute idiomatic that it almost sounds like another language. Gomez really seems to have gotten inside the culture he’s put onscreen and is offering mainstream viewers a different world, one they’d never want to visit in real life.
In the same vein, his performers, from Corley and Casseus down to the smallest bit players, come across as utterly naturalistic and believable. Conspicuous exceptions are the cops, who are annoyingly portrayed as gross, mean , sadistic and almost all white.
Shot on the streets and in the projects, pic seethes with verisimilitude. Snippets of vibrant hip-hop are heard at frequent intervals throughout.