Producers: Corey Smyth, Alex Georgiou, Tom Butterfield, Ben Pugh and Brad Feinstein Director: Nabil Elderkin Screenplay: Marcus J. Guillory Cast: Kelvin Harrison Jr., Charlie Plummer, Jacob Latimore, Jonathan Majors, John Corbett, Robin Givens, Amber Heard, Mo McRae, Zoe Renee Thomas and Terrence Howard Distributor: Vertical Entertainment/Paramount Home Entertainment
Even the efforts of three fine young actors can’t save “Gully,” a flamboyantly bleak fiction feature debut from celebrated music video director Nabil Elderkin, who made the well-received documentary “Bouncing Cats” in 2010. The film also boasts an excellent supporting cast, though they too can’t redeem what amounts to a generally pointless, and too often crudely melodramatic, tale of teens drained of hope by a cruel and blighted environment and giving in to their worst impulses.
Calvin (Jacob Latimore), Jesse (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and Nicky (Charlie Plummer) are best friends from a depressed area of Los Angeles, hanging out together and protecting one another. Calvin, the most volatile, is smart, but suffers from serious mental health issues and skips school despite the best efforts of his single mother (Robin Givens). Nicky (Charlie Plummer) is only slightly less liable to act out; though considerate of his little brother, he’s contemptuous of his mother (Amber Heard), a prostitute, and he’s gotten his girlfriend (Zoe Renee Thomas) pregnant. Jesse (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is the quiet one—mute, in fact, though we hear him narrating the movie internally.
All three are suffering from childhood traumas. Calvin witnessed his father gunned down by a policeman, and Nicky watched as his was beaten in their front yard. Jesse, however, suffered the most; he was abducted from a Laundromat as a child by a pedophile, Mr. Charlie (John Corbett), a married man with a family who’s kept him in a house ever since and visits regularly to drop off money and groceries, but expects favors in return.
The trio engage in reckless conduct, beating up local dealers to steal drugs. They also follow a driver who’s dissed them on the road to his home, terrorizing him and his wife and stealing his SUV, in which they then take three out-of-town teen tourists on a wild night that ends in more robbery and violence. And that’s all before Calvin and Nicky decide to wreak revenge on Mr. Charlie and his family for what’s he’s done to Jesse.
Interrupting the boys’ desperate story are a couple of older figures that haunt their world. One is Greg (Jonathan Majors), a neighbor man just out of prison for assault and trying to go straight. He stays with his loving mother, and sees Calvin, in particular, as endangered and in need of a father figure. Another is Mr. Christmas (Terrence Howard), a homeless man who acts as a sort of one-man Greek chorus, babbling pseudo-poetic commentary on wasted lives and shattered dreams.
These characters further weigh down a plot already heavy with heavy-handed symbolism and platitude. Greg, for example, spends much of his time not merely hauling around a lawn mower in hope of finding lawn work, but building a shack for himself in his mother’s backyard—a literal new life. Jesse is often found ensconced in his bathtub, cutting himself off from the world physically as well as by refusing to speak—except in his constant voiceover, of course. Nicky’s concern for his brother reflects his anxiety for his unborn child and its mother.
And Calvin proves indeed a special case. He frequently expresses his intention to fly away to Venus, and for his birthday his mother, for some reason, gives him a bright cape which he dons to sit atop the roof and scan the sky. He also cherishes his skateboard, and when he’s struck by a wayward car and it’s broken in half, he reverently buries it. (Off-screen Jesse informs us, with crushing banality, that it was the straw that broke the camel’s back.) Calvin completely loses control, opening him to revenge from somebody he’s wronged, just as an act of clumsiness on Nicky’s part lands him in the slammer.
But these tragedies cause Jesse literally to find his voice again—the glimmer of hope in what seems a totally dire situation.
“Gully” is a pretentious mess, but its three young stars continue to show promise, even if their roles don’t bring out their best. Harrison (“Luce,” “Monster”) convincingly suggests the rage smoldering beneath the surface, and Plummer (“Lean on Pete,” “Spontaneous”) manages to bring nuance to what’s essentially a one-note character, while Latimore, in the flashiest part, exudes angry energy while toning it down in the more reflective moments. The supporting cast is underused. but Majors brings gravity to Greg. Unfortunately, the talented Howard is stuck in a hopeless part as the pseudo-poetic street person.
Elderkin and his team—cinematographer Adriano Goldman, production designer Jeremy Reed and editor Damion Clayton—approach the material in show-off mode, fashioning a persuasively dystopian vision of L.A. but opting too often for visceral excitement and heavy-handedness over thoughtfulness. Daniel Heath’s score is similarly on-the-nose.
“Gully” has a degree of emotional power, but it’s unfocused and over the top; its eagerness to impress is all too evident.