Many viewers will roll their eyes at the film's "unrelated characters in a series of coincidence" structure, similar to Crash and magnolia. However, first-time director Aimée Lagos also folds the film's timeline over in the middle, intercutting between the innocent half moving forward and the dramatic, thrilling half moving backward. The purpose is less about obscuring how college students Carley (Brittany Snow) and Lena (Christian Serratos) come in contact with Dre and his moronic buddy Kevin (Jonathan Michael Trautmann) for the sake of some contrived payoff, and more about putting Dre in that moment, with flashes of his decisions coming back to haunt him.
For the most part, the film rests on the performances of Ross and Snow, and both actors rise to the challenge. Although the viewer is meant to sympathize with Dre to an extent, because he's trying to get his life on track, Lagos puts him in some situations where he can't walk away with his hands clean, and Ross doesn't shy away from any of it, giving his character an angry, resentful side that shows what Dre could've been had he wanted to be. Snow, meanwhile, has to fight through her own fear in order to keep an eye on Dre's internal battle, and use whatever she can to keep Dre calm and collected or find a way out of the situation. David Oyelowo is also good in a small supporting role.
Thanks to the performances, 96 Minutes holds up as an emotional thrill ride, but some of the nuts and bolts of the story are not so successful. Another thing that will remind viewers of Crash: heavy-handed ideals and social and political commentary about the world we live in. It adds nothing to suggest a couple of minor cop characters end up racially profiling a character, or that a character believes one thing in the comfort of debate class and another out on the streets. The story also hinges on the monumentally stupid actions of Kevin, he of the "need to talk about" variety. Thanks to Ross' performance, the film works, but it's a constant battle between his work and the actions of an obnoxiously naive and bitter jackass who figures the least helpful decision he could make in every scene and makes it. Sure, it's part of Dre's lack of control, but the viewer ultimately just has to go with the fact that Dre is going to keep giving Kevin more chances to ruin everything.
Lagos' style as a director is not as interesting as her style as a writer: close-ups and handheld for maximum emotional impact, with the occasional audio drop-out to emphasize a moment here and there. Other elements, like the relationship between Oyelowo's character and his nephew, are fine but not particularly relevant to the story that Lagos is trying to tell. Still, the performances and core ideas of the movie were enough to draw attention away from the bad and toward the good, which is more than can be said for too many debut feature films.
The Video and Audio
One nice little touch that Lagos uses to help define the area that the film is set in is the occasional use of a train crossing, one that might separate the "good" and "bad" sides of town. Much of the film takes place inside a vehicle, which adds some interesting sound design as well. Other effects include a few gunshots, some fast driving, people yelling over each other -- all done with nice weight and surround effects on a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track. No subtitles are included, but the disc is closed captioned for televisions that offer that option.
Trailers for other ARC Entertainment releases play before the main menu. An original theatrical trailer for 96 Minutes is also included.