Fresh: Boaz Yakin’s Feature Debut about Black Ghetto, Starring Giancarlo Esposito, N’Bushe Wright, Samuel Jackson

The drama Fresh, marking the impressive directorial debut of Boaz Yakin, provides a fresh angle on life in New York’s black ghetto. Though its morality may be controversial, the movie also features a new type of protagonist, a complex teenager, willing to do anything to escape his fate.

Unlike the recent slate of African-American movies (the best of which are still “Boyz N the Hood” and “Menace II Society”), Fresh was neither written nor directed by a black filmmaker.

Scripter-director Yakin is a native New Yorker, of Israeli descent, who studied at NYU’s Film School. His previous writing credentials have not been striking. While they showed commercial sensibility, they were also derivative, as evidenced in the formulaic The Rookie, which Clint Eastwood directed.

Yakin’s highly original picture revolves around Manhattan’s Washington Square Park and the chess players who frequent it. Its youngster is a new kind of screen hero in American movies: a resourceful 12-year-old boy nicknamed Fresh (Sean Nelson). Seemingly ordinary, it soon becomes clear that Fresh is far more complex and daring than kids his age.

Fresh tells the story of a young boy’s way out of the vicious, immoral circle of drugs and violence. Sadly, he was born into this world and it’s the only one he knows. Fresh’s life is a constant struggle to get to school on time and stay on the right side of his aunt.

In the opening scene, Fresh is late for school, because he’s running behind on his morning rounds as a drug courier. Living with 11 female cousins, the isolated boy keeps his own counsel as he delivers for local heroin kingpin Esteban (Giancarlo Esposito) and “freelances” for assorted sidewalk and backroom dealers.

Although forbidden to see his father Sam (Samuel L. Jackson), Fresh surreptitiously meets him in Washington Square for sessions of speed chess. A brilliant near derelict, Sam proves a tough taskmaster, mercilessly lecturing his son about the importance of discipline and concentration and the price of stupid moves.

What chess has to do with the rest of Fresh’s life only slowly becomes apparent. In fact, speed chess provides the movie’s central theme, functioning as the bond that unites Fresh with his vagrant father. The game also serves as a metaphor for the boy’s precarious existence, mostly spent running drugs for local dealers.

In a shocking sequence, a pickup basketball game turns deadly violent, as well-known crack dealer Jake (Jean LaMarre) shoots in cold blood an opponent. A witness to the crimes, the taciturn Fresh can’t say anything to the police–if he wants to stay alive.

As Fresh makes his way through the neighborhood, events that are out of his control begin to coalesce in a terrifying manner. His shrewd plan for escape becomes a simple tactics for survival, realizing he must instigate a most violent game. He sets a trap by igniting the various drug dealers in a bloody battle over the issue of invading each other’s turf.

Given the nature of the film, producer Lawrence Bender encouraged Yakin to look to Europe, rather than the U.S., for backing. “Americans wouldn’t get the point of this film until it was made,” he argued. “This is very much an auteur film, which is not completely resolved with its bitter-sweet ending.”

Bender’s success with Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs” prompted the Paris-based company, Lumiere Pictures to provide full funding for the film. As Bender had anticipated, U.S. distributors showed interest once Fresh started shooting. Indeed, when the movie premiered at the Sundance Festival, it already had Miramax as its distributor.

Youngster Sean Nelson was deservedly cited at Sundance for his startling, powerful performance. Yakin found Nelson after several weeks of casting, though it took him three months to realize Nelson was right for the part.

The supporting cast, composed of Giancarlo Esposito, N’Bushe Wright, and Samuel Jackson all hit their marks.

“Fresh” is skillfully shot by Adam Holender (“Midnight Cowboy”) whose cinematography captures in vivid colors the claustrophobic, frightening dimensions of inner-city life. Dorian Harris’ vibrant editing and Stewart Copeland’s score also contribute to the film’s rich textures and moods.

Despite its technical and narrative accomplishments, I suspect that “Fresh” will generate controversy over its ambiguous point-of-view, specifically putting a child at the center of widespread crime and bloodshed. Audiences will sympathize with Fresh’s motivation–to save his sister from becoming a drug-addict–but they may also feel nervous over the spectacle of a teenager who’s doing everything and anything to survive.

Yakin doesn’t delve into the sources of the drug and deprivation problems–je just assumes they exist. For him, a smart kid like Fresh is part of the problem. The film’s point of view remains vague, perhaps intentionally, so that audiences will make up their own minds about the issues.

Ultimately, what makes Fresh a good movie is its effectiveness in conveying the tragedy of a boy who has never experienced the joy, experience, naivet of being a child.