Powerful, gritty, and poignant, writer-director Saul Dibb's debut feature, Bullet Boy, is surprisingly potent.
Why surprising? Because after reading briefly about the film, with its comparisons to Boyz N the Hood, with its look at youth-oriented urban violence and its exploration of the danger of guns, one might worry clichés would abound. Thankfully, they don't.
It does help that the film is set in East London, or rather, a very real East London. This isn't the glamorized Guy Ritchie look at criminality (i.e. good-looking, poppy, grubby fun), this is down, dirty, and at times, in-your-face cinema. Dibb, who made documentaries before this, utilizes his past work with a raw approach that feels both respectful and frightening.
In an 8 Mile-like move, rapper Ashley Walters (otherwise known as Asher D., one of the lead rappers in the British rap group So Solid Crew) headlines the picture as the troubled Ricky. The fact that aspects of the actor's own life mirror the picture (Walters has done some time; he's also been busted for possessing a firearm) offers extra layers of truth, deepening his impressive performance. And you never get the feeling that either Walters or the director is using his "red" for cool points (a la Get Rich or Die Tryin').
The film begins with Ricky's release from prison, something that's made him determined, like many an ex-con, to put his life back together. But going straight won't be easy, and just as he's heading home to Cardiff, he finds trouble. A trivial street confrontation escalates after Ricky sides with his best friend, Wisdom (Leon Black), against a local "rude boy." He's immediately returned to the thick of violence, street loyalty, and all the elements that have caused him to stray.
Worse, his 12-year-old brother, Curtis (Luke Fraser), positively worships Ricky. And though Curtis is intelligent, soulful, and at the age where he could choose a different path (watch the fascinating documentary The Boys of Baraka for a similar, real-life glimpse), you can feel the struggle.
Directed with a keen eye toward authenticity, relevant without being preachy, and full of skilled performances (Walters and young Fraser are stand-outs), Bullet Boy is memorable and richly compelling. Though it's wonderful to see the film on DVD (most Americans were not exposed to the picture) it's a shame so few extras grace the disc. (There's just a photo gallery and trailer.) A commentary track would have been nice, and, more than likely, intriguing. Still, the powerful movie speaks for itself.