Writer-director Keith Miller's feature-length debut "Welcome to Pine Hill" showed an ambitious willingness to merge documentary and fictional storytelling methods, but with "Five Star," the filmmaker truly manages to fuse them into a compelling whole. Once again relying on non-actors to imbue his narrative with naturalistic intensity, "Five Star" is set amid the perils of gang life in the Brooklyn housing projects and features performances by actual former gang members riffing on their own lives. As a sociological experiment, "Five Star" offers plenty of talking points, but its real triumph is that the cast delivers, yielding a story in which the heightened suspense emerges organically from a gritty foundation of realism.
"Five Star" makes its unorthodox production style clear in its prolonged opening sequence, during which bearded, muscular Primo (James "Primo" Grant) sits behind the wheel of his car and recalls the trauma of being behind bars while his son was born. Speaking to no one in particular, Primo's dark monologue is like a lyrical prelude to the lively drama that follows, setting the stage a story in which he strives to look out for his family even as the ensuing desperation keeps him paradoxically drawn to a life of crime.
In addition to caring for his own young children and pregnant wife, Primo takes a paternal interest in teenager John (John Diaz), whose father was shot under mysterious circumstances during his childhood. Even as he proclaims a desire to guide John in the right direction, Primo's assertiveness is questionable. Showing off a tattooed mark of authority on his shoulder, he gives the movie its title: Rather than belonging to local warring gangs Bloods or Crips, Primo is a "Five Star," a free-ranging manager of illegal street antics who transcends the command of either group. "We generals," he explains. "We don't answer to anything."
It's a questionable assertion considering the socioeconomic boundaries restricting Primo's lifestyle and the reckless actions he takes to keep them in place. Miller's roaming camera fluidly explores the bubble of the housing projects that determine Primo's lifestyle, striking a marked contrast to the alienating existence he leads when he ventures outside to moonlight as the security guard at a neighborhood bar. It's here that the camera sits still, watching Primo as he observes a more secure set of possibilities just beyond his grasp.
The director, who also edited the movie, gradually assembles the setting from fragments of exchanges in his personal and professional arenas, sussing out both characters' struggle to reconcile the two. In one darkly comical moment, Primo talks to his wife about beating up their landlord to keep him off their back about unpaid rent, then pauses to berate his warring young children about trivial matters.
Miller also draws an enthralling distinction between Primo's uneasy situation as he looks to the future and the far more delicate set of choices facing John, as he experiences first love and copes with his overbearing single mother. Uncertain whether he has any options aside from the drug-smuggling business Primo offers up to him, John is essentially trapped by the same forces as Primo, who urges the teen to work for him with a threatening set of instructions about delivering "packages" around the neighborhood. "You make everything sound like a death threat, bro," John says. Primo's response is chilling: "What kind of path do you think we're on?"
Like John Cassavetes directing an episode of "The Wire," Miller's feature thoroughly inhabits its self-contained world while trading plot for character, investing heavily in its performances. As a result, "Five Star" becomes a showcase for two new talents: As Grant, Primo's alternating tenderness and seething temperament is a stunningly focused achievement, while Diaz's scowls and smirks capably epitomize teen angst. As he grows increasingly curious about the conditions behind his father's death, "Five Star" nimbly shifts focus from its domineering older protagonist to map out John's emerging sense of individuality. Subtext is everything here: Without making any broad statements about the nature of the characters' environment, "Five Star" implies that the only way to avoid the pratfalls of a criminal life among the lower classes is to react against it, no matter the risk.
With such tense ingredients in play, it's unfortunate that "Five Star" stumbles in its penultimate scene, a clichéd showdown set against a stormy backdrop. But even then, the stakes remain legitimately unsettling: How do you escape a dangerous system that rewards you for playing along when there are no other options on the table? "Ain't no sympathy in this shit," Primo asserts about the criminal logic behind his underworld routine. "It's real." The tragedy of "Five Star" is that Primo does a better job of diagnosing his conundrum than figuring out any credible solution.
Criticwire Grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? A small scale premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, "Five Star" should find a welcome response from cinephile-friendly festivals around the world; though not primed for major box office success, it could generate sufficient word of mouth to yield some solid returns on New York screens and other niche markets.