Straight out of Brooklyn comes Keith Miller’s “Five Star,” a low-key but powerfully affecting urban drama that tells a familiar story — of drugs, power and respect on the inner-city streets — with such unusual authenticity and dramatic force that it’s as if we’re seeing it for the first time. Much of that impact is due to the presence of James “Primo” Grant, a real-life gang member who makes his acting debut as a dramatized version of himself, a kind of gangsta Othello who rules his kingdom with a fair but unwavering hand. Building on the promise already evident in his 2012 debut feature, “Welcome to Pine Hill,” Miller’s strongly assured sophomore effort is probably too bleak and rough-edged to make much of an impact in the commercial arena, but should be championed by discerning critics and adventurous fests following its Tribeca world premiere.
In many ways a companion piece to “Pine Hill,” infused with a similar sense of neighborhood and of characters trying to come to terms with their pasts, “Five Star” focuses on the tentative mentor-pupil relationship that develops between Primo (Grant), a “five-star general” in the Bloods street gang, and John (John Diaz), a skinny, fast-talking teen who sees running drugs for Primo as a more lucrative summer job than bagging groceries at the local supermarket. Once upon a time, John’s father, Melvin, was the gangland godfather who ran this ‘hood, until a stray bullet to the head took him out in his prime — an explanation neither John nor his mother (Wanda Nobles Colon) have ever fully believed. But the combination of Melvin’s genes and Primo’s patronage give the young man a kind of instant street cred, and he soon finds himself following — perhaps a bit too closely for comfort — in his father’s footsteps.
Although there is a central mystery in “Five Star,” about the father John never really knew and how he actually met his untimely end, the movie is driven less by the churning mechanics of a plot than by the accumulation of small, beautifully observed moments that convey a vivid sense of time and place (much like the movies, from “Mean Streets” to “Kids,” whose influence courses through it). Episodes of drug-running “business” and sudden violence alternate with the romantic, the tender and the mundane: John woos a girl (Jasmin Burgos) he’s sweet on, while keeping her at arm’s length from his newfound vocation; Primo plays stern but loving dad to a brood of young rugrats, with one more on the way. And in Miller’s world, sometimes even crime bosses have to hassle the landlord about overdue repairs. The film unfolds in and around the Walt Whitman housing projects of Ft. Greene, a sprawl of polygonal buildings that seem like their own autonomous city-state, but which geographically brush right up against the hipster bars and restaurants of gentrified Brooklyn — a frontier where bottles of malt liquor give way uneasily to artisanal microbrews.
With his long, sorrowful, bearded face, deep-set eyes and heavily tattooed torso, Grant cuts a commanding figure from the moment he first appears onscreen, delivering a long monologue, shot in closeup, about how he missed the birth of his own son because he was doing time. (Only much later does Miller reveal who Primo is talking to and where this scene fits into the narrative.) He speaks slowly and deliberately, with the self-aware clarity of a Michael Mann character — a solemn man, haunted by many of the choices he’s made in life, anchored by his own, inviolable sense of honor, respect and the rules of the street. Some might argue that it’s easy for a nonprofessional actor to impress in a role close to his or her own experiences, but what Grant does here is more than a one-off novelty. Moment by moment, he makes the choices — in terms of gesture, rhythm, intonation — of a natural, inspired performer, and he gives the character an almost mythic countenance.
One of the few professional actors in the cast, newcomer Diaz also makes a big impression as the disciple whose braggadocio outpaces his physical and emotional maturity by about two to one. He and Grant have an electric chemistry together that’s key to the movie’s success, the younger man striving to please his master even as he begins to suspect Primo may know more than he lets on about his father’s death.
Miller shoots in digital widescreen (the lensers are Ed David and Alexander Mallis), mostly in long, traveling master shots in which the characters are constantly surrounded by the movement and activity of the city around them. The night scenes, in particular, make excellent use of available light to wrap bodies and faces in a kind of halogen incandescence. At a compact, tightly edited 82 minutes, the pic never risks overstaying its welcome.