Escaping The Crack Ghetto Provides `Fresh' A Gripping Plot

------------ MOVIE REVIEW ------------

XXX "Fresh," with Sean Nelson, Giancarlo Esposito, Samuel L. Jackson, N'Bushe Wright, Ron Brice. Directed and written by Boaz Yakin. Broadway Market Cinemas. "R" - Restricted because of language, nudity, violence.

You may not buy the plot of this gripping little movie about a 12-year-old Brooklyn drug runner who finds a novel way of escaping the crack ghetto. Too much depends on timing, luck and the myopia of adults who fail to pay enough attention to the boy.

But the picture is so beautifully designed and dynamically performed that you'll probably feel inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt. Slickly photographed by Adam Hollender, whose specialty is studio-produced New York movies ("Midnight Cowboy," "Sea of Love"), Boaz Yakin's debut feature doesn't look like the kind of low-budget independent movie that wins awards at the Sundance Film Festival (where it tied with "Clerks" for the filmmakers' trophy earlier this year).

Nor does it play like one. Each of the key actors brings something unique and volatile to the picture, but they never end up looking like they're playing in different movies. Yakin has the ability to guide each of them to behave as if he were starring in his own movie, not as supporting players in someone else's story, yet he never indulges them or loses track of the narrative.

Sean Nelson is a quiet revelation as the title character, a child who actively participates in what he regards as the only game in town, yet consistently demonstrates more caution and smarts than his friends or relatives. Fresh is defined by a lack of surface emotion; that's partly how he stays alive and useful. But Nelson always suggests the longing within Fresh for a way of life that offers more chances for long-term survival.

Samuel L. Jackson lends gravity and a touch of alcoholic self-loathing to the role of Fresh's chess-playing father, who is forbidden to see the boy. Giancarlo Esposito, almost unrecognizable to anyone who watched him play the radical underground reporter in "Bob Roberts," is explosive and scary as the dealer who exploits Fresh and his rebellious, easily seduced older sister.

Also exceptionally well-cast: Luis Lantigua as Fresh's overconfident best friend, Ron Brice as another of Fresh's crack-dealing mentors, and Jean LaMarre as a schoolyard killer who is oblivious to the consequences of his latest grotesque outburst.

The women are relatively minor figures in this male-dominated underworld, but they're still vital as motivators. Fresh's sister (N'Bushe Wright), his well-meaning aunt (Cheryl Freeman) and the schoolgirl for whom he develops a short-lived crush (Natima Bradley) all carry story the forward.

If one of the studio executives in Robert Altman's "The Player" were to describe "Fresh," he might call it "Searching for Bobby Fischer" meets "New Jack City," with touches of "The Sting" and an after-school special thrown in for good measure. Yet it's never the mess that that impossible collection of formulas would indicate.

It's not a great debut film, mostly because Yoakin seems more attached to the cleverness of his story than to its credibility. But at a time when most films, independent or studio-produced, lack this tightness of plotting and execution, even that helps "Fresh" to stand out from the crowd.