With a title that plays knowingly on NWA, this autobiographical debut from 21-year-old writer-director-star Zephyr Benson swaps the black L.A. ghettos of Straight Outta Compton for the white, middle-class milieu of Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
Shot on location with a bracing, handheld immediacy, it’s an engaging but ultimately overstuffed morality tale that blends crime thriller, addiction saga, and coming-of-age elements. The lazily charming Benson — whose messy tangle of mud-colored curls, oblong, off-porcelain face, and giant green eyes lend him the look of a live-action Botticelli — plays Gene, an outwardly cocky high-schooler suffering reverberations from the death of his mother and subsequent abandonment by his businessman father (who appears in chronically shoddy green-screen fantasy sequences).
Gene finds himself drawn to nefarious drug kingpin and replacement father figure Cruz (a moderately threatening Aaron Costa Ganis), who sees the youngster’s high school colleagues as a promising potential market. One of the film’s chief pleasures is its satirical swipes at young, bourgeois Adderall fiends who avoid societal condemnation simply because they’re not black and poor.
Straight Outta Tompkins is rarely boring, but neither does it come close to attaining the hard-hitting moral force its creator is clearly striving for. This is in part due to a pervasive glibness that manifests in Gene’s grating, wordy voiceover. More damagingly, it’s all overly derivative of scores of superior urban drug movies, and Benson tries to cram an epic, Goodfellas-esque arc into its narrow frame. His film may be autobiographical, but, cinematically speaking, he needs to find his own voice.