A richly textured drama with an angry poetic edge that gets inside the obsessive subculture of New York graffiti artists, “Bomb the System” signals the arrival of a talented filmmaker in NYU film graduate Adam Bhala Lough.
Displaying an incisive sense of place, an unaffected empathy for his impassioned characters, a kinetic visual style and a driving grasp of narrative and pacing, the 23-year-old writer-director provides a fascinating glimpse beneath the surface of the guerilla art world that avoids the prosaic bluster of so many indie street-life dramas. Careful positioning by the right distrib should help the film connect with hip young urban audiences.
The New York graffiti art movement peaked in the late 1970s, became semi-legitimized in the ’80s with artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat, and was pushed further underground in the ’90s when the city’s transit authority introduced a rigorous subway cleanup campaign and the NYPD Vandal Squad was established. While a number of indie films in the ’70s and ’80s touched on the phenomenon, Lough’s is the first in more than 20 years to really explore that world; helmer uses it as a gritty background for a moving story of friendship, loss, anti-establishment struggle, artistic expression and self-exploration.
Despite having lost his older brother under tragic circumstances resulting from his nightly “bombing” forays with a graffiti crew, 19-year-old Anthony (Mark Webber) nurtures the same addiction. He hooks up with his buddy Justin (Gano Grills) and the latter’s younger brother Kevin (Jade Yorker) to shoplift spray-paint cans and hit the streets each night, on constant alert for cops and hostile rival crews and compulsively looking for virgin walls in out-of-the-way spots where their work will endure.
Not long out of high school, Anthony has no ambition beyond graffiti and getting high, but is pushed by his mother (Donna Mitchell) toward a San Francisco art college where he’s been accepted, and by his politicized girlfriend Alex (Jaclyn DeSantis) to leave New York and travel with her.
Signing himself “Blest,” Anthony is one of the most wanted graffiti writers on the Vandal Squad’s list, in particular that of hardass cop Bobby Cox (Al Sapienza), whose coke-and-booze diet makes him increasingly vindictive. A brush with the cop spurs Anthony and his crew to intensify their bombing excursions, earning them greater notoriety. When the inevitable confrontation happens, Cox’s more level-headed partner (Bonz Malone) is unable to control the strung-out cop, resulting in tragedy that pushes Anthony to make a decision but then has darker repercussions.
Lough’s screenplay at times spells out its agenda a little forcibly — notably in an anti-corporate rant from Alex. But the story conveys a strong sense of graffiti as a self-fulfillment mission, from the 1980s when kids “took the paint or took the pipe” to become artists or gangsters, to the present, when it represents a sense of purpose and belonging in an otherwise aimless existence or even just the glue with which to cement fraternal bonds. It also touches on the evolution of graffiti into other forms, from Alex’s more overt political poster art to the gallery-friendly work of a former street exponent.
The dirty cop character feels somewhat cliched and is overplayed by Sapienza as a snarling ball of hatred, but performances generally are restrained and affecting, especially the younger characters. Webber creates a sympathetic central character, deftly balancing intelligence, conviction and a certain lost quality.
Expanding on an experimental short film that served as his thesis project, Lough brings sensitivity but also an urgent, visceral feel to the gripping drama. Working with accomplished editor Jay Rabinowitz and lenser Ben Kutchins, the director roughs up the visual field with lots of jump cuts, dissolves and freeze frames, playing with film speed, focus, stock exposure and post-synched dialogue. Sharp use is made of heightened colors, often plucking out bold primary tones within the frame to match those of the graffiti art. Soundtrack also is densely complex, powered by a dynamic, extremely varied techno score from independent hip-hop producer El-P.