When it comes to depicting teenagers, Hollywood generally puts its characters in two cheap, lazy categories: You have your vacuous, horny drunks on one hand, and drooling, dorky shut-ins on the other. Most teen movies have neither the patience nor the bravery to show complex, intelligent people fumbling through the fog of young adulthood, searching for the person they’re supposed to be. The Hate U Give does that, then doubles down by plunking its protagonist square in the pyroclastic path of cultural upheaval and the various factions battling in the ashes. She’s a confused, frightened girl in a confused, frightened society. This is a great film because it handles a difficult subject with warmth and grace. Its tough questions only lead to tougher answers.
Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) is a bright, engaging girl from a poor, crime-laden black neighborhood. Her parents send her and her half-brother to a private school across town, and this puts Starr in an awkward social conundrum: At school, she blunts her true personality so her preppy classmates won’t judge her as “too hood.” At home, her black friends taunt her for going to a white school. This tightrope act leaves Starr frustrated and struggling with the reality that to please one group, she may have to abandon the other. Both of her worlds are rocked when she meets Khalil, her oldest friend, at a neighborhood party. A scuffle breaks out, shots are fired, and they flee in his car. Khalil gets pulled over by an anxious young cop and, in a scene blurry with tension and fear, is shot when a hairbrush is mistaken for a gun. Starr is the sole witness, and this puts her at risk in a variety of ways: Does she testify and incur the wrath of drug dealers for whom Khalil worked? Will witnessing a murder alienate her trust-fund classmates? Can she handle the fickle, prickly judgment of the general public?
The Hate U Give takes on each of these questions head-on, with a series of difficult scenes: Starr grills her uncle, who’s a cop, what he might’ve done during the traffic stop. He admits the situation might’ve ended the exact same way. “What if he were a white man driving a Mercedes?” That might’ve gone differently, he says. “Do you hear what you’re saying?” She implores. “It’s a complex world,” he responds, grimly. There is no easy fix. Starr fights with her bitchy classmates, who see her blackness as a cute novelty. Her boyfriend has to strip away her armor and prove he’s not like the other rich kids. All of these scenes are expertly written, and every character never resorts to cliché.
None of that would matter without strong performances, and this movie has some unbelievable ones. We’ll start with Stenberg–her Starr burns with warmth and energy. She’s smart and funny and endlessly likable. Put it this way: If Stenberg doesn’t get an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, the Academy can take their awards, lavender ball gowns, and all the tubas in the orchestra pit and chuck ’em in the nearest dumpster. She’s that good. Regina Hall and Russell Hornsby are rare movie parents who act like real parents–they can make mistakes and still act out of love. As the cop-uncle, Common projects muted fury playing a man who must navigate a social balancing act of his own.
This wobbly struggle between two sources of gravity runs throughout the entire film: Starr has to endure unimaginable tragedy, contend with activists who would use her for socio-political capital, and deal with the furious scrutiny of everyone around her. But she also has to be a kid, with crushes and boyfriends and what to wear to prom. She has to keep hope for the entire life she has ahead. The Hate U Give shows both halves of her existence without ever feeling false or forced. This should be another serious Best Picture contender.