This dourly serious film about drug dealers in Boston’s South End ghetto could only come from a filmmaker convinced he’s making his ultimate statement on America’s — and specifically black America’s — drug-and-crime culture. Writer-director Craig Ross Jr. dilutes rigorously effective dramatic scenes with pedantic, melodramatic strokes of overkill. Finally getting a paltry theatrical run after appearing two years ago in festivals, “Blue Hill Avenue” is better than the delay would suggest and could find its audience in ancillary with the right marketing.
Pic opens with the standard twitchy meeting of drug warlords in the usual grimy warehouse, and a verbose, literary narration from hero Tristan (Allen Payne), who asks, “How did we get here?” Shifting back 12 years to 1979, Tristan and his high school buddies E-Bone, Money and Simon (played as adults by William Johnson, Aaron D. Spears and Michael “Bear” Taliferro, respectively) so impress local kingpin Benny (Clarence Williams III) that he grants them an entry into his drug trade.
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“Blue Hill Avenue” moves with the grace of a prizefighter dancing around the ring during this section, as the boys turn into men with frightening speed, ripping off other dealers, commandeering their own piece of turf and sending plenty of signals to Benny that they will be a formidable crew. Although Ross relies far too much on narration to detail his inner contradictions, Tristan is nevertheless a fascinating central figure who reconciles his life on the streets as a tough leader in the crime world with being a straight-A student and the apple of his parents’ eye.
Shift to the present as Benny and local narco-detectives Torrance (William Forsythe) and Tyler (Andrew Divoff) join together to bring down Tristan’s group, now grown up and dominant in the South End’s crack trade. Tristan feels additional heat from family members who blame him for the plague of crack that’s brought down the neighborhood and from his wife Nicole (Latamra Smith). The gang’s stable sense of trust is eroded as the cops play one against the other with a wiretapping ruse, while Benny weaves some nasty surprises of his own.
After a string of bloody, and bloodier, face-offs and eliminations, it comes down to Tristan vs. Benny and “Blue Hill Avenue” manages to find a noirish resolution.
Ross has passed his own stern mood along to his cast: Payne is especially grim and no-nonsense, seriously supported by Johnson, Spears and Taliferro, whose deep, long stares would make anyone think twice about double-crossing him.
Williams is ideal for expressing Benny’s devious ways, while Forsythe and Divoff essay standard bad cops and Smith is limited by her angry wife role. The transition from the younger performers to the older thesps playing the same characters is painfully unconvincing.
Production has been fashioned to look like a classical crime pic rather than an exploiter, with Carl Bartles’ dark lensing as the lead element. However, Ross’ taste for slowly tracking cameras keyed on tight closeups and two-shots is relentless and tiresome.