African-American nerd representation is receiving a lot of love at Sundance 2015. The comedy “Dope” features black geeks obsessed with ‘90s hip-hop culture, “Me, Earle & The Dying Girl” features a youngin’ cinephile obsessed with Werner Herzog and similar foreign auteurs, and “Cronies” features a “cool-ass nerd” protagonist Louis Johnson.
Speaking with a lisp and sporting vintage coke bottle glasses, Louis (George Sample III) is caught between opposing cultures and friends. Having made a commitment to his girlfriend Nikki (Landra Taylor) and daughter Aisha (Samiyah Womack), Louis is trying to man up, stay away from the complications of his St. Louis ghetto and do right by his family. On one side, there’s his white co-worker Andrew (Brian Kowalski) with whom he spends his days “detailing,” Louis’ code for washing cars. On the other, there’s his proudly thuggish, vulgar childhood friend Jack (Zurich Buckner).
Nikki can’t stand the boisterous Jack, who pops by uninvited to their house smoking blunts and slinging weed; he’s clearly a bad influence on the straight-and-narrow direction that Louis wants to go, yet he’s loyal to his childhood friend. Andrew by turns isn’t that much better an influence, but is perhaps more relaxed and easy-going; he just wants to hang out, smoke weed and meet girls.
But lest you think the low-budget, black and white lensed “Cronies” is simply about juxtaposing upstanding whiteboy friends versus black hood rat gangsters, this soulful and serio-comedic drama is far less interested in race and much more concerned with examining the state of contemporary male friendship.
And positive and negative influences aren’t all there is to friendship. Louis and Jack’s relationship is problematic: they share a dark secret that is revealed deep into the movie. On the other hand, Andrew comes with far less baggage, and so the conflict in “Cronies” revolves around the complications of friendship replete with ownership issues, jealousy and envy.
Is Jack holding Louis back? Are they both experiencing growing pains, as Louis begins to transform into a responsible adult, while Jack is stuck in his old ways of hustling and chasing after pussy? These growing rifts demonstrate how Louis and Jack actually have the more complex relationship. As the trio score dope, chase chicks, hit parties and play craps, a type of male love triangle forms, with Jack on the outs. But “Cronies” is also about forgiveness and the trespasses that Louis needs to transcend. Jack also shows his own form of maturity when he realizes Louis friendship is not worth losing.
It’s certainly an interesting examination of male friendship, but what’s most lacking in this film is deeper insight. Men grapple with their emotions, how to express themselves and how to love, and “Cronies” zeroes in on this very male characteristic. But the undercooked plot tends to spin its wheels, repeating its ideas and doesn’t illuminate as much as it could have.
The second feature-length effort from producer/director Michael J. Larnell (“It Soothes My Soul”) has terrific energy. Practically another character in the film is DP Federico M. Cesca, whose stunning and atmospheric black and white photography soaks up the moodiness of these various characters. A tension of potential violence exists within “Cronies” as well. And while the film thankfully doesn’t go in a deep “Boyz In The Hood” direction, I might have been happier if it stuck to the intricacies of camaraderie. The movie’s interview framing device, in which the three characters discuss each other, their histories and debating the validity of things they’ve said about each other, is not quite convincing. It’s an interesting visual conceit, and surely makes the film stand out, but it also dulls the momentum. Eventually, you want to see fellowship play itself out, and find out if this triangular conflict will resolve or if it will implode.
Executive produced by Spike Lee, the film shows why the African-American filmmaker would enthusiastically support his protégés Larnell and Cesca. There’s a striking exigent quality to “Crones” that recalls the authentic electricity of “Le Haine” and animated immediacy of Lee’s “She’s Gotta Have It.” “Cronies” feels alive and of-the-moment. You can feel the balmy warmth of St. Louis summers, just as you can feel the various social pressures these men have to face.
Featuring hip-hop, soul and dubsteppy EDM songs mostly culled from St. Louis artists A-Game, L.A. Raye Cole, Itz Dre among others, “Cronies” features a vibrant soundtrack fitting for its tempo and swagger. All these aesthetics don’t entirely make up for the film’s minor shortcomings, but they add to the overall memorable flavor. While ultimately a little underdeveloped, “Cronies” is still nevertheless an auspicious debut with characters we often don’t see within this milieu, containing human texture than the average film set in the in or around the hood. [B]