Street culture, gangsta attitude, youthful hope and sentimental hearts and flowers mingle uneasily in tyro helmer Val Lik’s distinctively harsh feature “Boricua’s Bond.” This is Russian-born, Yank-raised 21-year-old Lik’s baby from top to bottom, seemingly untampered with, though more experienced hands might have smoothed the rough edges for a mainstream aud. If word gets out, urban sectors may respond to a pic that keeps it real, followed by potential interest from an overseas crowd perpetually intrigued by U.S. street scene. USA Films pickup debuted Wednesday in New York City, with openings in 10 other cities to follow July 19.
Angling for the record for most dialogue stuffed with expletives, pic reps an interesting, if deeply unbalanced, combo of random shots of South Bronx street life, and improvised and written scenes, all wrapped in the sharp look of Cinemascope imagery.
Flouting Hollywood conventions (or perhaps simply not interested in them), Lik launches his pet project in scattershot mode, intercutting semidocu images of life in Gotham’s most desecrated borough with disconnected moments introducing leads.
Focus is on Tommy (Frankie Negron), a young Puerto Rican guy who’d rather paint than join a gang, though he can’t help but be part of a tight circle that includes rowdy Axel (Ramses Ignacio), Wilson (Jorge Gautier), Avery (Geovanny Pineda), Christine (Erica Torres) and Rose (Kaleena Justiniano), for whom Tommy has a soft spot. Tommy sells a canvas for cash to bail out imprisoned bro Antonio (Jesglar Cabral), while quietly impressing some slacker gangsta types with his work ethic.
Anglo single mom Susan (Robyn Karp) and son Allen (a low-key Lik) move into the ‘hood; local thugs instantly pounced upon them. While Lik based the situation on his experience growing up on tough streets, script does not explain why Allen and Susan are here, of all places, or why they remain after numerous assaults.
In any case, Allen stands up for himself against Tommy’s pestering pals, inspiring Tommy to invite him into his circle. Neighborhood cop Highlander (Marco Sorisio) tells Allen to stay with his own kind, while appearing friendly to Susan. This turns ugly after his clumsy come-on to Susan during a visit.
At the most basic level, “Boricua’s Bond” is at war with itself: on one hand, viewing the people of the ‘hood from the perspective of a hip-hop Hogarth; on the other, creating an over-the-top melodrama with all the standard ingredients of torn families and innocents nearly crushed by a corrupt system. In his first feature bid, Lik demonstrates skills, but can never make these two aspects coalesce.
Pic concludes on some powerful notes inside jail, where a string of sudden tragedies occur, and where young thesps have a chance to let it all out. They’re better at rage than delivering quieter emotions, for which Lik has something of a tin ear. But the extremes of fortune are delivered passionately, even if some characters (such as Susan) disappear altogether.
Debut of salsa star Negron is steeped in natural realism. Justiniano is a bit on the blank side trying to express her character’s instincts for being good in a jungle like this one, while Ignacio is a terminal ham, his portly Axel apparently obsessed with stripping in public.
Raw and multicultural nature of material is reflected in soundtrack composed entirely of salsa and hip-hop cuts. Crisp widescreen lensing, which makes even the clearly low-budget approach to night shooting look good, is somewhat at odds with the raw material. Title, never explained in pic, refers to the Spanish name for Puerto Rico.