“Shampoo” meets “Medicine for Melancholy” (or “Before Sunrise”) in Qasim Basir’s two-hander “A Boy. A Girl. A Dream” — though with its protagonists largely lost in their own thoughts, this tale of strangers meeting on the night of the 2016 U.S. presidential election substitutes a poetical moodiness for those earlier films’ bantering garrulousness. One of the smoothest enterprises yet among that select group of features shot in a single take, the film succeeds as more than an accomplished technical stunt, even if neither its political nor character dimensions feel quite fully realized. Samuel Goldwyn plans a release for later this year, and timing it close to the midterm elections might be a wise strategy.
Club promoter Cass (Omari Hardwick) and his friend Roc (Jay Ellis) are partying in downtown L.A. with a half-dozen attractive lady friends when Cass’ eye is caught by passer-by Frida aka Free (Meagan Good) as he grabs a quick dinner from a curbside food truck. He chats her up; she’s polite but ambivalent. Nonetheless, she winds up accompanying the group to a nightclub where she and Cass seem to be the only people not merrily oblivious to the fact that history is going down at the polls.
The attraction between them leads to a kiss, but Cass blows it by becoming too forward, and Free stomps off. Fate interrupts their discordant parting with an instance of racial harassment, however — one that underlines the authorities’ tendency to treat a black man as the instigator in any scuffle — and that sobering episode repairs their tenuous bond. The duo wind up traveling by cab to a house party high in the Hollywood Hills. There, the upscale, mostly African-American attendees are more attuned to the evolving election results, and like much of the nation that night, in a state of growing agitation edging toward shocked disbelief.
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Thought the film, the two leads are mostly trying to avoid calls and texts from loved ones with whom they’re in (vaguely defined) conflict. Both are dissatisfied with their jobs, eventually sharing a few details: Cass’ promoting is just another way of putting off a dive into his real love, filmmaking, which means so much to him that he’s afraid to start in earnest for fear of failure. Meanwhile, Free caved to the pressure of family obligations in becoming a corporate lawyer, giving up her dream of becoming a deejay. Each have some of their creative work on their phones, with which they wow one another (but not the audience, which doesn’t get to spy the handheld screens); we just have to accept the conceit that two total strangers turn out to be extraordinary artists who give each other the confidence boost each needs.
That leap, and the shift in focus to a sort of love-story prelude (despite the fact that as written, these prickly protags tend to press one another’s buttons all too easily), winds up making the election night backdrop somewhat superfluous. Snippets of media reportage and commentary are heard, meditating on the surprise Trump win, and there are a couple short speeches about the gravity of that event — as well as the need for continued hope and struggle among communities the candidate targeted with his heated rhetoric during the campaign.
But beyond the general somber mood, the pic’s political commentary is implicit rather than explicit, which makes sense enough, as the central characters are too numbed by surprise to immediately wax articulate, or even angry, about the nation’s new era. (Of course, in the unlikely chance that a Trump supporter watches this nearly all-black-cast indie, they’ll probably dismiss the entire enterprise as “libtard” whining about nothing.) If Basir and Samantha Tanner’s screenplay ultimately feels like less than a full meal, its intelligence and restraint — particularly in resisting the lure of a heavier-handed message — are nonetheless admirable.
Both Good and Hardwick are attractive, charismatic performers who have no trouble bringing laser focus to a demanding task. Though we may wish the structure allowed space to learn more about their characters, it’s to the actors’ credit that we’d be happy to do so — even to the extent of a follow-up feature.
Despite the on-the-fly, real-time narrative approach, “A Boy” never plays as a mere logistical feat. (Apparently the elaborately pre-planned shoot required 13 full takes.) There’s an unexpected elegance to Steven Holleran’s widescreen photography, the primary quality of which is the glittering allure of the big city at night. In keeping with the concept, however, there’s minimal use of music.