96 Minutes is not just another teen movie. Starring a young ensemble cast, the well-paced debut feature from writer/director Aimee Lagos is a layered and insightful treatise on fate versus volition. It explores the hazards of growing up amid the chaos of urban life. It conjures familiar questions about economic and racial inequality by authentically rendering human interactions that range from the mundane to the nightmarish. Most importantly, it’s entertaining and gripping throughout, and I watched each scene in transfixed anticipation of the next.
The plot centers around a chaotic carjacking and the events that lead up to it over the course of one day. We jump back and forth along the timeline to learn exactly how these four youngsters ended up together in a speeding vehicle, two criminals in the front and two trembling victims behind them. Though Dre (Evan Ross) is at the wheel, he’s really a reluctant accomplice to the profoundly disturbed Kevin (J. Michael Trautmann), who hopes this crime will ceremoniously initiate him into his favorite street gang.
Kevin uses graphic video games to drown out the drug-fueled fights between his mom and her latest abusive lover in their crumbling abode; his daddy issues are severe, and his favorite foods are processed, dyed and packaged for convenience. Dre might hail from the same ‘hood, but he’s decided to challenge his own upbringing and set his sights on a self-made future. He’s got a supportive girlfriend and eagerly awaits his imminent graduation from high school. Unfortunately, matters like these are suddenly insignificant as Carley (Brittany Snow) and Lena (Christian Serratos) beg for mercy from the back seat and no one has a moment to stop and think. With Lena horribly injured and fading fast, there’s no time to wonder where it all went wrong.
We the omniscient viewers could probably fill them in, but it’s already too late. As we witness the inciting events unfold alongside the tragic aftermath, we wish we could somehow intervene on behalf of these clueless kids. After all, the very promising Dre was warned to steer clear of self-destructive peers, and he seemed poised to escape the hopeless cycle of violence and poverty that could have held him hostage forever. (“Fear and respect are two different things,” he points out when a gun-toting gangbanger proudly defends his own method of survival.) It’s frightening to watch a group of fragile underage souls chase their own demise at full momentum, especially when this all could have been avoided in any number of ways.
This suspenseful drama should be lauded for its uncommonly careful treatment of its characters. It doesn’t ask you to pick your allegiances or let anyone off the hook. By the time their day has gone from bad to worse, the doomed teenagers have all given us an adequate glimpse into their motivations and fears. Nothing is trivialized or mired in melodrama. Lena’s relentless boy troubles shape her experience as much as Kevin’s traumatic home life shapes his. Carley mourns her absent father and her academic and professional destiny as deeply as Dre yearns to carve out his own identity in spite of societal determinations. None of them can be expected to make sense of their own limited subjectivity, even as their realities forcibly collide under the most unfortunate circumstances.
This movie is chock full of emotional moments that ring true, partly owing to the wonderful casting. Snow and Ross have already snagged acting awards at the Boston and SXSW film festivals, respectively. I loved the palpable tension and appreciated that the shaky cam was handled with such admirable restraint. The already-high stakes don’t require any caricatured amplification, and a lesser filmmaker wouldn’t have been so measured and deliberate. I heartily recommend 96 Minutes as a refreshing break from the norm and a shining example of socially conscious storytelling.