Cutting between a carjacking gone wrong and the earlier-in-the-day events leading up to it, 96 Minutes weaves together separate-strand story lines on both sides of a Southern town-gown divide. The suspenser effectively takes stock of its characters and their milieus, and thus what's at stake. College seniors Lena (Christian Serratos), fresh off leaving her boyfriend, and Carley (Brittany Snow), frustrated that Dad will miss her graduation on account of a Tokyo business meeting, find themselves dragged along to a near-campus establishment called the Tavern; far from the manicured quad, Dre (Evan Ross), himself soon to graduate from high school, tries to dissuade angry younger cousin Kevin (J. Michael Trautmann), whose mother is abusive and abused herself, from carrying out a grand-theft-auto gang initiation, before the two take a cool-down bus ride across town to "the college." The order of before-and-after structure employed by writer-director Aimee Lagos, here making her feature debut, dictates that the moment the disparate threads converge not happen until relatively late in the film, by which time the ideas of inevitability and inextricability have long since been established, as we check in periodically on the high-tension situation unfolding in Carley's SUV: A young woman has been shot in the face, and Dre is trying to do damage control from behind the wheel. The narrative machinery grows creakier as the plot advances, and the film is a bit too strident about some of the issues at play (there's an early classroom debate about the morality of capital punishment), but 96 Minutes is admirably knotty nonetheless.
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