Angie Thomas' acclaimed, best-selling 2017 YA novel earns a faithful if sometimes too beholden film adaptation with "The Hate U Give." A social drama as enraging as it is perceptive, this coming-of-age story unspools through the lens of a 16-year-old girl who has been eyewitness to two tragic acts of violence. George Tillman Jr. (2015's "The Longest Ride
") sensitively directs and scribe Audrey Wells (2004's "Shall We Dance
") gets to the heart of the timely subject matter, but there is a certain dutiful stodginess to this translation from page to screen which keeps it from wholly coming to life.
There are two versions of Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg)one who lives in the lower-middle class, predominately African-American neighborhood of Garden Heights, and one who attends a posh, predominately white private school. More than anything, mom Lisa (Regina Hall) and dad Maverick (Russell Hornsby) want Starr, her older half-brother Seven (Lamar Johnson), and kid brother Sekani (TJ Wright) to be safe, and this is the reason they've taught them from an early age how to conduct themselves in a world where their skin color and others' racial profiling could get them killed. When Starr watches her childhood best friend, Khalil (Algee Smith), get gunned down by a white police officer (Drew Starkey) who has pulled them over for no good reason, she is left distraught and shell-shocked. As she attempts to navigate the precarious landmine of being the unidentified sole witness to what she deems a senseless, racially motivated crime, she ultimately turns her feelings of anger and helplessness into activism for a loved one who is no longer there to defend himself.
"The Hate U Give" finds a systemic, ripped-from-the-headlines correlation between racism and police brutality, its urgency found in a real world where such needless violence occurs practically every day, and without consequence. There is plenty of provocative material to unpack here, particularly within this era of the important "Black Lives Matter" movement, and it is largely handled with thoughtfulness. Starr's struggles in finding the courage to fight injustice ring true, while scenes where she is confronted by ignorance and bias from white friend Hailey (Sabrina Carpenter) effectively fulfill their purpose even if her school relationshipsnot only with Hailey and fellow friend Maya (Megan Lawless), but also with frequently-kept-in-the-dark boyfriend Chris (K.J. Apa)are rather underwritten and perfunctory. Meanwhile, Starr's voiceover narration, which worked so well within Angie Thomas' first-person prose, intermittently falls into the cinematic trap of telling rather than showing. Less would have been more, especially near the end as the picture's established themes are ineloquently spelled out.
In an emotionally demanding role where one false move might have spelled her undoing, Amandla Stenberg (2017's "Everything, Everything") is outstanding as Starr Carter. No pun intended, this is a potentially star-making turn, one of empathy, insight, and the kind of raw grit that offsets the film's sometimes glossy PG-13 sheen. Starr's tight bond with Khalil has minimal time to develop but just enough to convey the horror of what is taken before her eyes. What led to his death should begin and end with the officer's incendiary actions, and yet Starr constantly finds herself having to defend his characterfor one, his decision to sell drugs for local gang leader King (Anthony Mackie), which isn't nearly as black and white as it sounds. Stenberg is the film's most valuable asset, captivating as a teenage girl who has learned the hard way about the adversity and gross double standards she faces as a black person in America.
As Starr's parents Lisa and Maverick, Regina Hall (2017's "Girls Trip") and Russell Hornsby (2016's "Fences") are warm, supporting presences. The same can be said of K.J. Apa (2017's "A Dog's Purpose
"), as boyfriend Chris; Common (2016's "Suicide Squad
"), as police detective uncle Carlos; and Issa Rae (HBO's "Insecure"), as social advocate April Ofrah, though these roles are less rounded and more totemic. Anthony Mackie's (2018's "Avengers: Infinity War
") King, the heavy of the piece who sets his sights on Starr and her family when she snitches his criminal connection to Khalil, brings intensity to a one-note part that gives him few shades to explore.
"No matter what we say, no matter how loud we shout, they refuse to hear us." Starr's words pierce with a troubling truth about the festering circularity of prejudice and the constant struggle for persons of color to break through, to be listened to, to be respected, to not have to worry that each moment of merely walking down the street or driving in their car may be their last. "The Hate U Give" is an impassioned drama about a critical topic, affecting much of the time but a touch too on the nose at other junctures. Some lines prove stilted, even mawkish"Shine your light," Maverick tells his daughter at the breakfast table, "I didn't name you Starr by accident"while occasional plot points are either overly orchestrated or manipulative; an unconvincing late moment involving little brother Sekani unnecessarily bolds, italicizes and highlights its message when a subtler hand would have held more weight. Also less than dynamic is the flat lensing by director of photography Mihai Malaimare Jr. (2012's "The Master
"); there is little detectable style to its visuals, leaving the potent power of the material itself to pick up the slack. The film ultimately succeeds in this regard, and Amandla Stenberg is the shining light at its center.