The YA movie (Young Adult) has been a much more prominent form of a film over the last decade or so. We have had the boom of the Nicholas Sparks’ book adaptations, featuring young people in love, which had started majorly with the release of the Notebook in 2004. Combined that with the sub-genre of YA with Post-Apocalyptic world stories, kicking that craze off with the release of The Hunger Games in 2012, starring Jennifer Lawrence.
The Hunger Games was such a huge success, that sequels followed, which tied with their source material and a handful of franchises that based their plots around young, predominately teenager characters in life or death situations in a dystopian world, such as the Maze Runner and Divergent franchises.
The YA genre is certainly not original and has over time covered different types of stories centred on ‘Young Adults’, but the question is whether any filmmaker or writer can bring anything fresh to the table. The film in question is the latest YA movie starring Amandla Stenberg, who this year had also starred in a post-apocalyptic YA film called The Darkest Minds, so she is in familiar territory. Based on a novel by Angie Thomas, the film stars Amandla Stenberg as Starr Carter, a young black girl who lives in a poor neighbourhood but attends an upper-class school, sent by her parents (played by Regina Hall and Russell Hornsby).
Her parents have a clear radical past and her dad enforces on his family to believe in themselves and stay tough in a cruel, hating world, which stays within Starr. When she attends a party, she bumps into an old friend Kahilil, a gunfire is drawn, and the party members disperse. Kahilil drives her back home only to be pulled over by a police officer who assuming Kahili carried a weapon, open fires and kills him, leaving Starr to look on in horror. The family are told the policeman won’t be charged unjustifiably pending an investigation, Starr understandably becomes appalled and confused at this injustice.
While mourning the loss of her friend, Starr and her family’s life spiral completely out of control, as the media and outraged citizens of the black community turn Kahilil’s death into a call to arms. Her school life is affected as her fellow classmates use his death as an opportunity to protest in order to skip class for that reason only, there is a subplot involving her uncle (played by Anthony Mackie), a gang lord who want to hurt her family after she reveals her family’s past to a news presenter and so her dad dangerously slips further and further back into the world he once occupied in order to protect his family from harm’s way. Starr tries desperately to cope with her grief and the ensuing madness around her, as she finally decides after all what she knows is right and has to say.
The film and, it’s source material deal with weighty and topical subject matter, and to approach this story from the perspective of a young teenager is interesting but also important; a lot of what happens not just here and, in the world, today, influences younger people and shapes their lives. First and fore-most Amandla Stenberg is just amazing in the role, she brings a mature but powerful and subdued performance that vastly dominate the proceedings, what we know from her world point is clear from her portrayal as Starr and effectively shows us the anguish and confusion that her character goes through, as it seems like the whole world is against her and Oscar nominations should be considered.
Regina Hall and Russell Hornsby are also very good here, never giving in to over-acting or melodramatic gestures that might hinder the film. the film tells this story but never at the expense of great characterisation or subtlety. I think it is an important film that should be seen by not just young people on their own but with their families with which could tease important conversations. The message is timely, relevant and never feels the need to look down on young people or needing to wander into a melodramatic contrivance to make its point. It isn’t an easy film to watch nor should it be, George Tillman Jr. the director who has experience tackling young demographic before, most notably the Nicholas Sparks adaptation of ‘The Longest Ride’ and it’s to his credit that he understands the message of the source material, and has a confident hand to get great performances out of his cast very well.
The film proves there is life to be had in the YA genre and room to tell engaging stories for younger people that are effective, raw and honest and acts as a befitting swan-song to screenwriter Audrey Wells.
Director: George Tillman Jr.
Producers: Marty Bowen, Wyck Godfrey, Robert Teitel
Cast: Amandla Stenberg, Regina Hall, Russell Hornsby, Anthony Mackie, Common
Writer: Audrey Wells