Both as a book by Angie Thomas and now a film produced under the auspices of Rupert Murdoch's Fox, The Hate U Give was born of a very specific moment: a moment when young African-Americans found themselves being gunned down in the street by police with disproportionate regularity. (Seasoned observers would doubtless point out that said moment has now lasted several decades, perhaps even a century, and that it shows no signs of coming to an end.) The movie, adapted by the late, gifted Audrey Wells (The Truth About Cats and Dogs) and directed by George Tillman Jr., opens up an urgent new perspective on the now somewhat played-out YA genre. In films such as The Hunger Games, Divergent et al., we've watched as young Caucasian women in dystopian near-futures take several films to lead uprisings against those oppressive lawmakers directly responsible for the deaths of their contemporaries. For Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg), a young black teen shining bright in the projects of contemporary America - as for many of those who avidly bought and read Thomas's book, turning it into a publishing sensation - the future is now.
For once, then, we're put in front of a YA movie with a serious and substantive story to tell, yet what's notable about the film's first, careful half-hour is how closely it follows the contours of what previously seemed like disposable genre tropes - and how smartly Thomas and Wells manipulate those tropes to make a point. Starr's relatability is established via the addition of an item of Harry Potter merchandise - a wand that proves to be a pointed memento mori (she will inherit another by the film's end); she also finds herself torn between two distinct boys - her Edward and her Jacob, if you will. On one side of her, there is the loyal, devoted and very much white Chris (K.J. Apa), who caught her eye along the corridors of the exclusive prep school her worried mom had her sequestered away within; on the other, the resurgent Khalil (Algee Smith), a former childhood sweetheart of Starr's grown into a dashing, Air Jordanned prince. The brutal twist in Thomas's tale is that no sooner has this love triangle been established than one of its corners is rubbed out - and no, it's not the Caucasian.
As the movie charts Starr's growing political consciousness - an arc, one might note, that took Katniss Everdeen three whole movies to complete, and here necessitates the heroine negotiate cops, dealers and white classmates for whom Black Lives Matter is no more than an Instagram hashtag - it sometimes strays into pockets and passages of earnestness; it's not a perfect film, by any means. Yet it achieves an interiority - pulling us right into the centre of Starr's universe - that packs a most considerable punch. Credit Wells with filleting and finessing some of the most sensitively and judiciously placed first-person narration heard in recent cinema; but it's also achieved in large part by Stenberg's central performance. This actress was one of Katniss's doomed sidekicks in the first Hunger Games; here, she's promoted front and centre and made subject to an unusually demanding dramatic focus, becoming a repository for the hopes, dreams and worst fears of the target audience. Time and again, however, Stenberg proves incapable of anything remotely resembling a false response. Her shy smiles and flinches, the way Starr appears to crumble and then regather her energies after heavy responsibilities are heaped upon her shoulders - these are the kind of simple, direct truths that can keep a longish (133-minute) film on track.
That running time allows the film to breathe, and to better resemble the rhythms of everyday life. Tillman uses the first act to describe, in some detail, a world set to be torn apart, and then - after the rupture - works in nuance (the officer responsible for Khalil's death isn't some slavering bigot, just a blundering dunderhead with a gun, such as gets assigned to every neighbourhood) while developing an unusually complex and conflicted set of relationships. Most valuable of all, perhaps, the Thomas-Wells-Tillman troika draw up a portrait of a loving, necessarily protective black family, more ragged than the upper-middle-class Cosbys or Bankses of Bel Air; a clan who seem to have less to lose, but far more at stake. Somewhere in Thomas's writing, there may be a lesson in how good parenting can go some of the way towards mitigating against the haphazardness of modern American law enforcement: it's a story for moms and pops, as well as their sons and daughters. At any rate, it's yielded the first film in this YA cycle - and a rare studio-backed proposition - to feel closely informed by a deeply felt sadness, the sadness that presumably motivated Thomas to write the book in the first place, the sadness that gets repurposed into the kind of anger that sooner or later changes the world for the better. You may find yourself spotting the film making the odd clumsy misstep as it follows Starr's progress into that world; you may also find yourself, as this viewer did, with tears welling in your eyes all the same.
The Hate U Give is available on DVD through Fox from Monday.