Very nice without being very good, “The Hate U Give” tries to merge sweaty-palmed social justice issues with big-hearted TV teen movie romance. The resulting love child is a middling message picture that is legitimately important, humane, thematically compassionate, rather ho-hum and a waste of its fresh, appealing starlet.
Amandla Stenberg is irresistibly winning as Starr Carter, whose coming of age in high school is the film’s central concern. Sixteen-year-old Starr lives in a poor Atlanta neighborhood that is black by a large majority, and with her brothers attends a distant posh prep school that is mostly white. The kids were sent across the city to the exclusive school at the insistence of their mother, Lisa (Regina Hall), to keep them safe from the area’s bad influences and outright threats.
Starr values both worlds and sees her life as a nonstop performance to keep them peacefully in balance as she navigates between. When Starr crosses the school’s entrance, she hits an internal switch, powering the correct social vibe that makes her fit in with her privileged pals. Back at home she reverses roles again, stifling her code to one that suits the ’hood.
Which presentation she feels is her true one isn’t a question she addresses quickly in her voice-over narrative. Each sphere has significant lessons to teach, none of them more life-or-death important than the talk Starr’s devoted father, Maverick (Russel Hornsby), gives his children. At the dinner table he touchingly instructs them how to behave, obey and keep their hands clearly visible at all times when they are stopped by the police.
Which, of course, happens, leading to tragic consequences. Starr is the sole witness to the fatal shooting of an unarmed friend, which triggers a grand jury investigation of the white policeman who fired and a moral crisis for her. Should she come forward to testify, revealing the victim’s connection to the vengeful ghetto drug dealer King (Anthony Mackie), who was ex-con Maverick’s onetime boss? Or should she remain silent, concealing evidence that could bring the officer to trial over a shooting that has heightened community tensions nearly to the point of riot? What voice will she use and how will she use it?
This potentially rich web of complexities emerges in a manner that feels both melodramatic and stale. Following a well-meaning script adapted from Angie Thomas’ novel by the late Audrey Wells (the author of such middle-of-the-road crowd-pleasers as “Under the Tuscan Sun” and “The Truth About Dogs & Cats” died last week), director George Tillman Jr. (“Soul Food”) delivers an A-for-effort letdown.
The ambitious story travels across Starr’s unsure love life with her uber-affluent, would-be soulful boyfriend Chris (K.J. Apa), to her own family’s multi-parental dynamics, to light comedy, to powerful images of protesters battling cops. But nowhere along the way does it invest enough storytelling energy to effectively take root.
That’s a shame, because Stenberg hits every emotional beat of her challenging part with flawless accuracy, and Common, as her conflicted policeman uncle, adds an extra layer of intelligence to the project. Where Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” fused together its diverse ideas into vibrant excitement, this film seems like a by-the-numbers checklist aimed at satisfying the widest possible teen and young adult audience.