In some ways, Boaz Yakin’s debut film can be seen as a distant cousin to La haine (1995): a youth in the projects that cuts across multiethnic lines. All he wants is to escape it, but what happens when a child gets hold of a gun out of necessity?
Every streaming service tells you to watch this because of Samuel L. Jackson, and whilst his performance as Michael’s father is superb, he is not the draw of this film. Instead, that role goes to the titular Fresh.
I can’t say Sean Nelson gives the greatest performance. But as a child actor in such a superb film as it is, I can forgive him that. Fresh is not a sympathetic character. He manipulates the truth, yet is taken as authoritative by figures of authority, like the police, because they underestimate his youth. He strangles a dog, before shooting him. He unwillingly puts his friends closest to him in danger. He lives in a world of unsympathetic characters, where an adult woman is so desperate that she asks him for a blowjob.
Yet the film creates a contrast. The film is very well edited, and in particular it creates juxtapositions. Michael is an ‘innocent’ child in a world that has lost its innocence: he plays basketball cards at school, lives in a crowded house full of videogames, regularly meets his father for games of chess in the park.
Neither is Fresh isn’t a dark film: we see dark scenes, yet we always come back to lighter colours and an upbeat score by Stewart Copeland. These two realms coexist. As Fresh eats a bar of candy, he sees a violent shootout, left completely undisturbed. Fresh finds that chess isn’t as simple as he thought it was, instead based on strategy and rules. What is simultaneously a game of plastic pieces as played by children is also a model of violent, territorial, adult warfare.