New York onscreen is often a fantasy of hustlers, hardened cops, and the spoiled urban yuppies of the Baumbach and Dunham universes. In that sense, writer-director Keith Miller’s modest drama Five Star is the kind of depiction the city sorely needs. The prelude to a project in which Miller plans to set ten films in and around the Walt Whitman Houses in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene, Five Star follows John (John Diaz), a teenager unhappy with the prospect of spending his adult life working at a grocery store. Primo (James “Primo” Grant), a former associate of John’s deceased father, offers him an all-too-easy initiation into gang life.
Primo is no savior; in one scene he describes the mechanics of a pickup to John, who scoffs that he’s making it sound like a death threat. “What kind of path you think we on?” Primo responds. Miller partially based the script on interviews with Grant, whose life experiences are folded into the film. But Miller’s fascination with Grant, which includes extended orations on manhood and responsibility, triggers a distancing effect; an awkwardly placed conversation with a bar owner who’s hired Primo as muscle at a bar mitzvah reinforces the sense of an outsider looking in.
Miller does better when focusing on Diaz, whose gangly build and mouthful of braces makes John equally endearing and frustrating. This crime initiate is an awkward boy who snaps phone photos of stray cats. Miller makes a case for a similar duality in the city itself, showing John innocently courting his girlfriend in the park and on the beach, the same beach where he’ll later stand, gun in hand, under a stormy night sky.
Written and directed by Keith Miller
Opens July 24, IFC Center