Good intentions are not quite enough for “Fifth Ward,” indie filmmaker Greg Carter’s micro-budget drama about day-to-day struggles for survival in Houston’s most notorious inner-city neighborhood. By turns bluntly persuasive and crudely amateurish, pic is best suited for fest and video venues.
Despite the relative novelty of its setting, “Fifth Ward” comes across as much too similar to earlier dramas about life and death in the hood. Directing from his own episodic screenplay, Carter constructs his narrative around James (Kory Washington), a good kid in a bad situation. After the death of his older brother in a drug-related home invasion, James is eager to find a better life for himself beyond the Fifth Ward. But even as he works as a convenience-store stock clerk to earn money for college, he’s often tempted to make a killing — literally as well as figuratively — through various illegal activities.
At one point, James gets a chance to kill the men who murdered his brother, thanks to the intercession of Bam (Creepa), a quick-tempered gangster who sells guns in the hood. But James is neither willing nor able to pull the trigger. He comes close to actual mayhem only while defending his mother (Donna Wilkerson) and younger brother (JaCorrey Lovelady) from his mother’s violent live-in boyfriend (Thomas Miles).
Carter clearly wants to offer a balanced picture of African-American life under hardscrabble conditions. To that end, he introduces James’ uncle, Earl (Thomas Webb), a dedicated EMS driver who insists that “there’s just as much beauty here as there is ugliness.” And to provide romantic interest, Carter has James fall in love with Haan (attention-grabber Junie Hoang), the daughter of the Vietnamese store owners who employ him.
More often than not, however, “Fifth Ward” merely offers the usual parade of doomed young hotheads and viciously racist cops. Rip (Lee Carter), James’ best friend, cues the melodramatic climax when he attempts a robbery to repay a debt to Bam. Pic ends on an upbeat note, but just barely.
Webb, Miles and Hoang are standouts in a cast that ranges from adequate to awkward. Tech values reflect the severe budgetary restraints.