Working within the heady world of poetry slams and neo-bohemian soul searching, first-timer Michael R. Traina does a good job of wringing cinematic juice from inwardly cerebral stuff. In its breezy 81 minutes, “Verses” introduces auds to several styles of modern wordplay and wraps them around four or more young protags who are easy to care about — even if they don’t always seem to take good care of themselves. Small pic could do some specialized urban biz given the right college try.
Christopher Jaymes, who also plays some music on the pic’s jazzy soundtrack, stands out as Lance, a fast-talking, chain-smoking troublemaker holding court at a local cafe (actually in Lancaster, Calif.) where a jam-packed competition is about to begin. He trades pop-culture banter with his usual foil, Clay (Ben Caswell), a tall, handsome galoot who appears easy-going to a fault but actually has some mettle when it comes time to hit the mike.
Their repartee is joined by that of diffident blonde Carolyn (Rachel Parker), having commitment problems with her latest relationship, and her pal Kurt (Ben Gattas), a slinky hipster who shocks Lance with the sincerity of his political engagement. Later, he shocks him on another, more personal level.
In between the foursome’s conversational rounds, there’s time for some recreational pot smoking, pool playing and even a bit of bathroom sex (some women really like to show off their piercings). Plus appearances by real-life poets like PBS vet Bob Holman and deaf poets’ society member Ellen Rooney. Actor Rodney Johnson, with bass and drum accompaniment, stops the show with Charles Hood’s Afro-jazz piece “Coffee.”
The words onstage and off — the action never gets farther away than the cafe’s parking lot — are well integrated, with the narrative effectively broken up by quick B&W video clips of poets talking about their craft. Rough (but not shaky) tech credits are just right for the come-as-you-are subject, and acting is convincing overall, even if some scenes are a little wooden.
Parker’s character and her delivery are both less developed than other aspects on offer, while the frizzy-haired Gattas has an intriguing screen presence — once auds get over his somewhat unfortunate resemblance to Pauly Shore. The long-gestating “Verses” was originally called “Slam,” until that title was taken by another pic about youngsters talking themselves in and out of trouble.