Three troubled teens unload years of pent-up rage over 48 hours of drugs, violence, and mayhem in “Gully”, the first narrative feature film from director Nabil Elderkin. Best known for his Hip Hop and R&B music videos for big acts like Kanye West, John Legend, and The Black Eyes Peas, Elderkin teams with screenwriter Marcus J. Guillory to tell an inner-city story with big aspirations that it never quite reaches.
The three close friends at the film’s center seem doomed from the first moment we meet them. Calvin (Jacob Latimore) is a charismatic kid with a mental health condition who routinely skips out on his medication despite the pleas of his concerned mother (Robin Givens). Jesse (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) is quiet and full of pain which he keeps bottled up and hidden even from his two buddies. Nicky (Charlie Plummer) witnessed unspeakable violence as a child and while we get glimpses of a playful and carefree exterior, especially at home with his addict single mother (Amber Heard), inside he’s a swirl of volatility just waiting to implode.
The movie works overtime stacking the deck against these kids. Abuse, poverty, no real father-figures – just a few of the things touched on to show the hard lives they’ve had. They’re essentially abandoned, stripped of any childhood, trapped within their rough Los Angeles neighborhood, and left to exist by the dictates of an uncaring and unreliable culture and society. The problem is the destructive elements that have led to their delinquency are never examined the way they should be. Instead the film is content with wedging in a brief scene here and there in an effort to earn our sympathies. It helps us to understand the boys better, but not enough for us to like them the way the movie wants us to.
Elderkin seems far more interested in soaking us in the debauchery and violence than exploring its root causes. This leads to a frustratingly muddled messaging. I don’t want to say the film glamorizes their sordid behavior, but there are scenes where it certainly comes close. And their sudden shift from mischievous juveniles to violent criminals comes without so much as an explanation. One second they’re letting out their rage and angst through a Grand Theft Auto styled video game. The next scene they’re beating a complete stranger to a pulp and stealing his truck. And it only gets worse from there. Are we supposed to excuse it all simply because a handful of brief scenes show the three were dealt bad hands? The movie never finds that much needed balance.
Strangely there’s another running story that almost feels like it’s own thing. In it we see a terrific Jonathan Majors playing a recent parolee determined to live straight. In many ways his story is the most interesting and watching his character reacclimate to neighborhood life is more compelling than anything the three teens do. Sadly his story never really goes anywhere and it’s connection to the main story is minimal at best. We also get Terrence Howard randomly popping up as a homeless street profit who pushes his shopping cart around and speaks incoherent musings on street life. It’s a thankless role.
Nearly every facet of “Gully” works noticeably hard to be as gritty as possible – the dialogue, the direction, even the performances. It’s unfortunate because it handcuffs the three terrific young leads who otherwise do the best they can with what they’re given. As a director, Elderkin knows his way around with the camera and there are a number of striking images and visual choices to prove it. But overall it’s hard to figure out exactly what the movie is saying. Is it speaking out against violent video games? Is it a warning that violence begets violence? Is it just another story about hard times in inner-city neighborhoods? It touches on all of that and more but never with enough conviction. So we’re left with a lot of questions and too many ideas that never get the full treatment they deserve. “Gully” opens in select theaters June 4th and on VOD June 8th.