Mean Streets

in 40th Seattle International Film Festival

by Juan Dominguez

Eric Kohn wrote that Keith Miller’s second feature Five Star feels “like John Cassavetes directing an episode of The Wire”. True. But what’s more powerful about this movie that uses the mentor-pupil narrative gimmick both as a heart and as a compass is not so much its sense of vérité (Primo, the mentor, is a real-life gangster and, in the way he occupies every frame he’s in, is a sort of menacing yet fluffy John Wayne-according-to-Spike Lee presence: he is the perfect example of how Five Star mixes nonfiction and genre staying true to its characters) but its capacity to create a real-life feeling, of making genre the intrusive element and not the other way around.

Life breathes through genre — that seems to be the cinematic sense that defines Keith Miller’s best impulses. Mentor or apprentice, Miller’s leading men be it Primo or John (John Diaz, a gentle and anxious scarecrow-like kid), are capable — at least before the ending — of creating a palpable mood with their bodies and the way their decisions resonates on them.

The movie craves real-life feelings of the day-to-day life in the Walther Whitman housing projects in Ft. Greene, Brooklyn (if you Google it, the second entry would read “NFT — Not For Tourists”. But it is not only the most somber and oppressive feelings (the vivid and humid sense of duty created and carved between thugs, drug dealers and those who live around them — even when these ones are the people they love) but also the lighthearted and mundane instants that fill the movie with a beautiful and high-protein energy.

Far apart from the gloom and doom aura that usually defines these sort of movies, Miller uses the nonfiction cinematic nerve to capture meaningful and complex moments, even when they seem ordinary. By doing this (by showing the ravaging attraction between two young kids born and raised in the projects, by creating tender moments of care between Primo and his autistic son, by showing random kids playing gleefully in the background), he demystifies gang life, or at least the gang life construction that has been built in songs, movies and videogames. That doesn’t mean the gang life is not an important presence, of course. What this means is that Miller is able to turn the tables when it comes to the romantic notion that has been built around gangster life in pop culture: he actually manages to make gang life something that resembles a day-to-day task, a tense one, sure, but a daily (yet still menacing) choice.

The devil is in the details, and Miller knows it. That’s why every little body gesture (the way Primo caresses his chin, the way John teeth’s can offer the most welcoming and flirting smile and a gritted way of showing his hateful fears) and every shadow or ray of light matters in these projects. Five Star may stumble, mainly because of the way the narrative yields to clichés and genre near its end, but still manages to be a new and fresh approach to a cinema that believes in the world and its flawed yet human characters. Miller does not need to print the legend, he prefers the beauty of the fact.

Edited by Amber Wilkinson