It’s hard to fault filmmaker Aimee Lagos for wanting to follow spiritually in Paul Haggis’s footsteps. Aside from our snooty disdain, the man’s had a pretty fucking great career. With her feature film debut 96 Minutes, she decided to go with a social commentary mashup of four different cliches weaved together on a carjacking gone wrong. The frustrating part is that the acting and characters are pretty solid, if not molded out of cliches. If it wasn’t mired in such a stupid goddamn trite plot, it could be probably be a solid movie. She gets more mileage out of her non-linear storytelling than she should be able, and she might have packed a little too many storylines which she abandons later into the story, but what’s there is a fucking condescending and stereotypical mess. The buzzword for the weaker films of the festival this year seem to be stereotypical — which is something that new filmmakers need to write out of their system. Every cop is racist, every hood character is gangsta, the good people are unquestionably good, the bad people are unquestionably bad, and for such a messy film it’s starkly black or white. A little gray might have really benefited the feature. As it stands, it feels like a bad slasher film blended with the Kidz Bop version of Crash.
It opens with a car full of frightened young people, screaming and shouting and crying. Carley (Brittany Snow) is a pretty blonde pre- law student, and she’s holding her friend Lena (Christian Serratos, Angela from the Twilight Saga) in her lap as she bleeds from a gunshot wound to the head. Carley begs the driver, a hard looking punk named Dre (Evan Ross, Gardens of the Night), to take them to the hospital, but he’s getting berated by his buddy Kevin (J. Michael Trautmann) who thugs in the front seat and turns up loud rap music to drown out the screams. Then we leap backwards as we figure out how these four people came together and where they came from.
And that’s pretty much where the film gets mired in triteness. Carley’s parents are distant and so she works extra hard and rarely goes out and parties. Lena’s sleeping with the class cad and when they break up, she’s heartbroken and so her big sis takes her out to get fucking trashed and ignore his philandering ways. Dre’s just trying to get out of the ghetto, and he’s just trying to protect his knucklehead cousin from that gangsta gangstas Boyz N The Hood-ing their way around the neighborhood. And that knucklehead cousin is Kevin, who’s mother’s a stripper and who gets menaced by her latest boyfriend, so he desperately embraces his bitchass wiggahood. There’s also a subplot involving a BBQ restaurant owner named Duane (David Oyelowo, Danny Hunter from MI-5) who remains tangential to the plot as an extra means of tying the different narratives together.
While it’s interesting to see the various pieces slowly step in and advance, which is a testament to Aimee Lagos the director, the general sort of socially conscious cheesy ass after-school special morality is a punishment delivered unto us by Aimee Lagos the writer. Every single cop is racist in the film. The gangstas are all thugs and always bad. Kevin’s always a fuck-up loose cannon, guaranteed to do the bad thing and act the devil. While Dre is supposed to seem wavering in his morality and whether or not he will do the bad thing, you never doubt he will do the right thing. Lena’s kind of a victim of fate, and Carley’s there because Brittany Snow is really beautiful. It’s rare that a female screenwriter and director would be just as throwaway with her female characters as a male, but congratulations to Aimee Lagos on keeping the Hollywood Hope alive. If she had taken time to sit down with her script and forced herself to go in the opposite directions on a lot of stuff, to differ slightly, then it would have been fucking terrific. But she doesn’t, and so we’re forced to watch interesting characters do really uninteresting things that we’ve all seen before.
A better film is buried somewhere in the bullshit of 96 Minutes, but I don’t know if it’d be worth rooting around to find. Then again, this might just be the bias of the film critic smashing anything that seems cliche. 96 Minutes is just the kind of faux edgy flick that banks millions at the cineplex week after week, and marks Aimee Lagos’s opportunity to be another generic gun for hire cranking out PG-13 slasher flicks and gritty teen heroin dramas in the great Hollywood sausage factory. But shouldn’t we expect better from our indie filmmakers?
96 Minutes debuted at the SXSW 2011 Film Festival.