It's tough to make a film that tells the story of
characters that are completely outside of the life of
the filmmaker. Fresh (1994) has been
categorized along with Boyz N The Hood,
Menace II Society, and other "ghetto" films of
the Nineties. With its youthful protagonist it does
seem to fit the "coming of age" profile, but director
Boaz Yakin isn't from the world of the film or
anything remotely resembling it, and he approached his
debut film more as an opportunity to tell a unique,
curious story than as a way to express any deep
personal experiences of his own.
That's why Fresh is so surprising. It's a neat
little riddle of a film that needs to be experienced,
no pun intended, with a fresh mind. The first hour
introduces us to young Fresh (Sean Nelson), an
outer-borough kid with a job to do before school.
Instead of delivering newspapers, however, he collects
packets of heroin for local drug lord Esteban
(Giancarlo Esposito) and delivers them to the local
dealer. Fresh is a quiet, private kid who doesn't run
off his mouth often and manages to gain the trust of
some unpredictable characters. By following him
through his daily experiences (selling coke for
another drug dealer, staring at a girl in school,
trying to cope with the cramped living arrangements at
his aunt's apartment) Fresh sets itself up as
another experience movie. We get to see a world that
certainly exists but that we may not otherwise see.
Like the protagonists in Boyz N The Hood and
Menace II Society, Fresh is a smart guy,
smarter than his friends. He is also, for all his bad
deeds, far more sympathetic than those around him.
Like those other films, however, Fresh also
makes sure to humanize all the characters. When
sudden, disturbing violence breaks out, it is painful
to watch because of how awful it is but also because
of Fresh's pent-up reaction.
What makes Fresh different, however, is what
happens when the film enters its second half. To
reveal too much would be to ruin the experience. The
first time I saw the film I didn't expect anything and
as the ending approached I found myself sitting up in
my chair thinking "Wait a minute! There's something
else going on here!" It's almost like there is a
second film happening just beneath the surface and
Yakin's inspiration is to develop it so subtly that it
can almost go unnoticed. As the credits rolled
(following one of the most striking and abrupt endings
of any film) I needed to start the film over and watch
Viewers jaded by films like The Usual Suspects
and Memento may not find this too intriguing,
but the film does develop a complex dramatic arc that
helps illuminate the lead character even more. Plot
devices aside, the film stands on the performance of
Sean Nelson, a 14 year old kid at the time of the
production. His performance is so impressive that it's
impossible to believe he's so young. He spends most of
the film listening to the other characters, absorbing
what they say and working it over in his mind. Fresh
is an extremely smart kid (illustrated is some unique
ways) and Nelson ably communicates his ability to
analyze situations. By the ending, a remarkably
honest piece of writing and acting that strikes at the
heart of Fresh's internal dilemma, he's crafted one
of the finest performances of any child actor.
Yakin's love of film comes through in every aspect of the movie. The pacing is slow and patient, which helps emphasize any unexpected outburst, the editing is simple and clean except for moments that need focus, and the camera placement is meaningful and thoughtful. When Fresh watches one particularly violent scene we see the reflection of gunfire over his head like fireworks and his view of the action takes on a stage-like quality, underscoring how detached he is from the actual danger. As Fresh goes about his life we are reminded of Francois Truffaut's masterpiece The 400 Blows. The ending especially has the same sense of mystery and openness as that great film.
There are some problems with Yakin's approach. Even though Fresh is such an interesting character and Nelson such a terrific presence, there is always the sense that this is a film by a filmmaker who knows more about the people he's portraying from reading articles in the paper than from actual contact. Some characteristics are important to the thrust of the film but don't quite ring true and a brutal scene set in a dog fighting ring helps tell the story but doesn't portray the sickness of that world. Anyone who has actually seen the people who enjoy this "sport" knows that there is no humanity involved. But, sadly, it does have a place in the world of Fresh and, during another disturbing act of violence towards a dog later in the film, Yakin milks the audience's sympathy for the animal as a way of both showing Fresh to be a complex, imperfect character and to mark a dramatic turn in his emotional development. This sort of manipulation is effective but may not be for all viewers. Other films, ranging from Amores Perros to The Royal Tenenbaums have used cruelty to animals recently in varying degrees of success to make character statements. While it is sometimes appropriate (as in Amores Perros and somewhat in Fresh) and sometimes not (as in Tenenbaums) this is a strange trend worth keeping an eye on.
That minor caveat aside, Fresh is a unique and engaging film with a lot going for it.
The anamorphic widescreen video is ok, if a little
unexciting. A relatively low budget film, the
cinematography (by Midnight Cowboy legend Adam
Holender) is beautiful, but it doesn't lend itself to
crisp digital reproduction. There is a bit of dirt on the print and a touch of edge enhancement in some
scenes. Overall it looks fine, just not comparable to
recent restoration jobs.
The Dolby Digital Surround soundtrack is fine, with
clear dialog and ambient sounds. The mix emphasizes
the noises of the city and works nicely. If I have one
complaint about the film's production it is that the
score by Stewart Copeland (formerly of the Police)
doesn't work very well. Yakin's notion to fill the
film with melancholy coming-of-age music instead of a
standard rap soundtrack is interesting, but Copeland's
work is a bit maudlin and sometimes distracting.
Fresh features an impressive selection of
extras. First, Boaz Yakin's commentary track is an interesting example of a young filmmaker with a lot to say. Much of what he comments on is the overall creative process he went through with this film rather than on specific trivia nuggets. He compares it to his subsequent films and in one funny moment notices how when he recorded his commentary for Remember the Titans, his foray into the world of uber-producer Jerry Bruckheimer, the scenes were so short that he had to rush to finish his thoughts while in Fresh the scenes played for so long that he was running out of things to say.
The DVD also includes a very short behind the scenes segment and a gag reel, which is not necessarily a blooper reel, but rather the kind of collage edited together for film crew wrap parties.
Additionally, a large selection of cast auditions is included. Sean Nelson's is particularly interesting since it is immediately obvious that he has a dynamic, exciting quality but he also projects a kind of kinetic excitement that the more reserved Fresh character would never display. Good direction and acting moved Nelson from his audition performance to the fantastic final product.
Film to storyboard comparisons are also included, as well as a selection of trailers.
Fresh is one of the best examples of mid-Nineties independent filmmaking, a brief time when adventurous and daring films were being produced on budgets small enough to encourage experimentation but big enough to accomplish impressive logistics. Yakin and Nelson created a terrific character and, by leading him through a twisty path, were able to create a film that is both effective and surprising.