J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Street Crime in TX: Bang Bang

It is sort of like Gran Torino without the grouchy old white dude. Indeed, adult supervision is distinctly lacking for the young people involved with Asian gangs in Byron Q’s gritty urban coming-of-age drama Bang Bang (trailer here), which screens in Austin, Texas this Wednesday and Thursday.

Justin has a difficult relationship with his mother, but that is more than can be said for his long absconded father. Much to her frustration, Justin has become involved with a street gang. In fact, he has been tapped by their leader Rocky as an up-and-comer. Out of frustration, she has kicked him out of the house that she herself is often absent from, which probably is not the best way to nudge him back onto the straight-and-narrow.

Justin crashes with his friend Charlie, a rich kid whose parents spend most of the year in Taiwan. Nobody considers him a potential kingpin, yet Charlie aspires to join the gang out of existential revolt and parental resentment. In contrast, Justin would prefer to get out of the thug life to pursue a spinning career and a relationship with the lovely Jenn, notwithstanding her boyfriend abroad. Unfortunately, gang rivalries and Charlie’s increasing instability make it difficult to plan for the long term.

Though BB certainly has the low-def DIY look and allowed space for its cast to improvise, it should not be considered yet another dreaded mumblecore movie. Rather, this is a film with a strong narrative drive and a surprisingly sharp, street-smart sense of humor. Although it follows the general hoodlum-trying-to-get-out story arc, writer-director Byron Q takes it in interesting directions, particularly in the ways Justin’s relationships with his mother and Rocky evolve.

While very much a product of urban sensibilities, BB acts as a pointed rejoinder to suburban kids’ idealized embrace of the hip hop gangster lifestyle. To that end, David Huynh is frankly rather creepy depicting Charlie’s descent into self-destructive wannabe madness. Though lacking physical presence, Thai Ngo plays Justin refreshingly smart, showing a rare facility for deadpan dialogue (whether scripted or improvised). Conversely, the camera loves Jessika Van, who brings a credible human dimension to Jenn, BB’s clear representative of the straight life (a student with a job).

As an independent feature debut, BB deserves far better than the patronizing label: “it shows promise.” Rather, it is a genuinely visceral and direct street crime drama. It is definitely worth catching as Byron Q barnstorms across the country. The next stop is the Galaxy Highland Theater in Austin this Wednesday (9/14) and Thursday (9/15).

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