“Roll Bounce” spins an endearing but wildly uneven coming-of-age drama set against the popular ’70s phenomenon of “jam skating.” Funky disco-era throwback never fully jells with a surprisingly intense central tale of father-son estrangement, strongly acted by Chi McBride and 18-year-old rapper-thesp Bow Wow. Mellower and more downbeat than its exuberant promos would have auds believe, the Fox Searchlight item should perform well in urban markets, though its legs may buckle if middling word of mouth takes hold.
Whatever its shortcomings, lovingly directed pic is recognizably a personal work rooted in a specific time and place — in this case, Chicago, summer of 1978, when the flashy art of jam skating — think disco on wheels — is all the rage, spawning skaters whose routines are as flamboyant as they are competitive.
Moody adolescent Xavier “X” Smith (Bow Wow) spends most of his free time skating with his buddies on the city’s South Side. But when their favorite hangout closes, they’re forced to relocate to Sweetwater, a huge rink on the North Side, where the boys feel intimidated and unwelcome. Pic manages some decent fish-out-of-water comedy when Xavier and friends first venture into Sweetwater, rendered to the hilt through William Elliott’s sprawling retro-fabulous production design.
As if all the beaded curtains and rude clerks weren’t enough, the rink is also home to an arrogant, afro-sporting skater named Sweetness (Wesley Jonathan). Flanked by an all-male entourage dressed in iridescent-leather creations (designed by Danielle Hollowell) straight out of some never-made sequel to “Saturday Night Fever,” Sweetness is apparently so potent a sex symbol he makes Xavier’s prepubescent sister swoon.
Humiliated after their first visit, the boys swear to get even by entering the rink’s annual skate-off, dominated by Sweetness.
A backstory emerges at home as Xavier has trouble coping with the recent loss of his mother — who had encouraged his skating — while building up a core of resentment toward stern but mildly neglectful dad Curtis (McBride).
Previously known as Li’l Bow Wow, thesp has since retired the diminutive prefix from his name — which, if the maturity of his performance here is any indication, makes a lot of sense. Soulfully charismatic Bow Wow plays Xavier as a young man always on edge, capable of laughter and high spirits, but with an underlying gravity.
He’s matched by McBride, who brings a grave, wounded dignity to Xavier’s father. One of the strengths of the screenplay (by “Beauty Shop’s” Norman Vance Jr.) is that it doesn’t demonize Curtis. Instead, he comes off as a loving, even affectionate father whose own sense of failure — he hasn’t had a job in months — makes him harder on his son.
This family dynamic ends up dominating pic to an almost unfortunate degree, as Xavier and Curtis have two exchanges so wrenching and emotionally charged they can’t help but make the skating seem trivial by comparison.
Helmer Malcolm Lee (“Undercover Brother”) devotes little time to showing Xavier and his friends practicing — their terrific routine at the climactic skate-off feels a tad unearned, though there’s no denying the actors’ skill on the rink. Lee also has a hard time navigating the jarring tonal shifts from earnest sentiment to trash-talking slapstick. But when the boys do play the dozens, the delivery is forced and the banter itself mostly second-rate.
There are perhaps too many love interests and potential love interests floating around, as Xavier befriends a cute neighborhood girl with braces named Tori (the appealing Jurnee Smollett), then has several awkward run-ins with old friend Naomi (Meagan Good) at Sweetwater. For Curtis’ sake, even Tori’s alluringly sassy mother Vivian (the game Kellita Smith) is thrown into the mix.
Cinematographer J. Michael Muro makes good use of the generous widescreen format during the skate routines (expertly choreographed by Kishaya Dudley), but lensing is less confident off the rink. Retro music selections are spot-on.