‘The Hate U Give’ leans on strong, devoted performances

“The Hate U Give” – Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) shines in director George Tillman Jr.’s film, and her celestial name fits, because she lives in two worlds.

You see, Monday through Friday, her mom Lisa (Regina Carter) drives her a few miles to Williamson, a predominately white high school, and she lives with her loving family in Garden Heights, a mostly black neighborhood.  Starr explains that she can be herself at home with her family, friends and neighbors, and adds that her mom and dad say, “Our life is here, because our people are here.”

In school, however, Starr flips a switch and puts an effort to fit in with her white classmates.  For example, she does not wear her hooded sweatshirt at school, and generally speaking, she says that she is Starr at Garden Heights and Starr Version 2 at Williamson.

She has been managing this administrative duality for years, and – so far – she has not faced collisions between her two social spheres, but that soon comes to a screeching halt in a massive way.  A white police officer shoots and kills her childhood friend Khalil (Algee Smith), and she is the lone witness.

The lone witness.

“The Hate U Give” resides in combustible themes, as it copes with Khalil’s death through Starr’s personal experience, not only during the shooting, but over a painful aftermath of social minefields at home, school and more.

Now, from the get-go, Starr is instantly likable and Stenberg and Tillman successfully draw us into her spaces and mindsets.  Not only with Starr’s dichotomy, but Tillman gives Garden Heights a bright and colorful atmosphere with lush greens, yellows and reds.  Williamson is bright as well, but it’s filled with icy, corporate blues and grays.  High school can be tricky enough without volleying between two different versions of yourself, and it’s easy to empathize and/or relate to Starr’s delicate balancing act.

After the shooting, Tillman’s movie works best when Starr leans on her family to process the emotional stress of Khalil’s death and accompanying legalese.  Russell Hornsby delivers a bedrock performance as Starr’s dad Mav, who is infinitely supportive of his daughter and two sons.  Mav dabbled in trouble during his youth, but experience begets knowledge, and he passes his reality of living in America to his kids, while also delivering a demonstrative strength as a sturdy pillar of support.  Lisa matches Mav’s love for their kids, and while Starr faces incoming, foreign societal forces, this teen can confidentially look within her home for affirmation and warmth.

Outside of Starr’s family, the relationships sometimes miss.

Starr’s boyfriend Chris (K.J. Apa) from Williamson quickly becomes a nuisance (to this critic) with a constant barrage of ineffectual “How can I help?” encounters.  Sure, it’s important for the film to have Starr emotionally connected to someone at school, but their relationship never really progresses.  Quite frankly, the movie would exist just fine without Chris.  Although admittedly, he contributes to the most hilarious moment in the movie, which will not be named in this review.  Now, Starr’s changing relationship with her Williamson female friends is not funny at all.  Unfortunately, their suddenly troubled friendship feels a bit forced in the third act, and perhaps a subtler approach would have been more effective. (The less is more rule.)

The film also tugs on frayed legal and media threads.  At times, Tillman deliberately moves the picture away from Starr’s immediate surroundings and into farther distances, but as she feels less connection to these outside forces, you might too.

Through Starr’s eyes, “The Hate U Give” delivers a ground-floor look at race relations, injustice and the uphill struggles to affect change.  It is maddening to know that we live in a time when 18-year-old Michael Brown (1996-2014) of Ferguson, Mo. and many, many other young men of color are needlessly killed by those who protect and serve.  “The Hate U Give” offers a distressing and infuriating – but also an accessible and tangible – look into the matter, as Tillman’s movie shines brightest through Stenberg and her celestial-named character.

⭐⭐⭐ out of   ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Image credits and Trailer credits: 20th Century Fox

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