By Rodrigo Perez | The Playlist April 29, 2014 at 4:05PM
Like a highly-rated Michelin restaurant, Primo is par excellence. A “five star” member of the Bloods in Fort Green, Brooklyn, Primo is akin to an Italian mobster’s made-man status; he’s untouchable. His word is bond. So when local teenager John’s absent father is killed by a stray bullet in the streets, Primo tries to bring the boy under his wing.
John doesn’t need to worry for nothing, Primo says. John’s padre was like a father to the gangster, so if the boy wants to join the life, he’s set and taken care of. Primo spins a good story; respect, status, regard and no one to fuck with John or his family. Primo’s co-sign also makes him golden. But the uncertain, angry and confused John—a teenage boy preoccupied with girls, his single mom and still grappling with the feelings of mourning a negligent parent—is still trying to figure it all out. The offer stands, and it’s up to John if he wants to join the life. And make no mistake, it’s a life and not one easily absconded from.
Writer/director Keith Miller’s “Five Star” is an engaging portrait of power, influence, manhood, father figures, the allures of the gang life, struggling low-income families and more. And as Miller is wont to do, the movie blends fact and fiction. The film’s star James "Primo" Grant is an actual gang leader in the Brooklyn Bloods, and naturally, he brings a high level of authenticity to the picture. Moreover, Primo has a deeply absorbing charisma that is crucial to the film on every level. His integrity is such that the non-actor is totally believable and his natural presence means not only can we not take our eyes off him, but we understand why John (John Diaz) is also persuaded by his slick tongue.
Miller’s Slamdance-premiering feature-length debut “Welcome to Pine Hill” demonstrated a respectful understanding of urban stories and how to successfully direct untrained actors, but was marred by low production quality and values. “Five Star” thankfully ups its game here looking on par with most indie films of today and exhibits how the filmmaker’s craft and point-of-view is only getting sharper.
Well-drawn and intimate, Miller’s best observations come incidentally; “Five Star” explores ideas and relationships rather than spelling them out. Perhaps most poignant is the dichotomy of Primo’s position as a feared gang leader juxtaposed by his role as father of four with a new baby on the way. Primo talks the game, but it’s understood how high his stakes are. What to do with that is never investigated by the plot, but it’s understood that it weighs heavy on his soul, which is part of why “Five Star” resonates so deeply.
Much is understood and never said, and so the soulful picture charts men and dynamics of their relationship more than it does plot. Until it doesn’t. More structured than “Welcome To Pine Hill,” it does eventually reveal some unwelcome plot machinations. Its conclusion dips into some rather predictable and familiar traits from the urban gangster drama—something that Miller doesn’t seem very interested in, and something you’d likely see first in a John Singleton picture. John ultimately wants to know who killed his father and as Primo might have the answers, a clash becomes inevitable. So this as plot element is odd to see in the work of a thoughtful filmmaker who normally eschews any notes of contrivance.
But his narrative conceit would be extremely unfortunate if it weren’t for the groundwork that Miller has built up until this point; even a regrettable (arguably clichéd) plot twist can only spoil the movie so much. And a focused tone helps smooth the unevenness still leading to a satisfying conclusion. While the engaging "Five Star" doesn't totally come together in the end, it’s still a strong effort by a filmmaker we certainly haven’t seen the last of. The key take away is that Miller’s film is a (mostly) focused and captivating character study of a man torn between family and duty and an adolescent mixed up in that milieu. [B]