Part coming of age story and uncompromising social commentary regarding disenchanted youth growing up in the Bronx, Boaz Yakin’s Fresh eschews the cliché ridden faux-sentimentality of life in the ghetto – first and foremost opting to tell a compelling story with characters that don’t fall into the trap of stereotypes whilst providing a powerful message on the importance of family and the social injustices of impoverished communities. Yakin stresses the personal and political change necessary to put an end to the bloodshed and immoral atrocities rampant in these downtrodden places where government institutions are scarcely provided. Above all else, education is the key to positive change.
What stands out in a film like this that deals with subject matter that has been covered time and time again is that the characters come across as real people with complex emotions and depth. Even the murderers and thugs aren’t just mere cardboard cut-outs of familiar gangster-type associations; the way they communicate or react to certain situations reveals much about their personalities. Take Esteban (Giancarlo Esposito) for instance who is a big-time drug dealer that our 12 year old protagonist Michael (Sean Nelson) or Fresh as he is more commonly referred to works for as a drug pusher in the streets of Harlem. Esteban is a family man and not the familiar strung-out mean-spirited criminal that only cares about money even though he is driven by greed and prone to intimidating bursts of rage as complications surface in the drug-trade. He holds loyalty and truthfulness in high esteem and even goes out of his way to treat Fresh like his own son. Esteban may not be the most decent man to be around but he is a man of principles and it’s refreshing to see a crime-lord with some semblance of humanity. Another refreshing aspect is that Yakin doesn’t pigeonhole his characters as “good” or “bad”. The streets are a war zone where drugs, violence and prostitution are rampant. The struggle for survival in such a hostile environment plagues these people especially Fresh who wants nothing more than to save enough money and escape the hustling street life before it’s too late. With minimal government support, these poor souls are left with very few options to make an honest living and continually get roped into this dangerous lifestyle so who are we to judge? The youth is the most vulnerable to corruption and Yakin emphatically points out that education is something that needs to be reinforced in these young children who are falling victim to this perilous lifestyle since they don’t know any better. Until the government decides to put forth the effort to intervene this is a problem that is not going to be resolved anytime soon.
In what is probably the most overlooked child performance of the 90’s or possibly ever, Sean Nelson is spellbinding in the title role and carries the entire film. The emotional range and his ability to portray Fresh as an smart kid that is exceedingly clever without coming off as too precocious is nothing short of masterful. It is a shame that Sean Nelson’s career never really took off after this film and if the heart-wrenching final scene is any indication, this young man showed incredible talent at such a young age. Fresh may be young but living in these conditions has forced him to grow up quickly even though he is still just a kid at heart. The awkwardness of his school-yard crush showcases Nelson at the top of his game; completely in control of his character by switching from his normal rigid imperviousness to a kid unsure of how to approach the situation. The film wears its heart on its sleeve and relies on Nelson’s genuine performance in order to effectively portray its themes and ideas. Fresh has to maintain a firm assertiveness so as to not show weakness because of the sordid work that he does even though deep inside he is terrified and filled with anguish. His relationship with his alcoholic father (Samuel L. Jackson), a skilled chess player who spends most of his time in the park drinking from a brown paper-bag and playing the game is the emotional core of the film. Chess is a game of strategy and during these visits, Fresh’s father offers him advice on the game but looking closer at the dialogue, it soon becomes clear that these are valuable life lessons that he is giving his son. The chess lessons also help to influence the way Fresh cunningly decides to outsmart his opponents which of course are the drug-dealers he sells dope for. The way he goes about doing this is incredibly suspenseful that is intricately thought out making the plot exhilarating to watch unfold. Even though the film can be grueling to watch at times because of how unflinching the violence is depicted, the raw authenticity of the script, perfect pacing, and wonderfully drawn characters makes it difficult to turn away. This film is leaps and bounds ahead of all those other films dealing with similar subject matter because it actually has something positive to say and goes about doing so in a thought-provoking and intelligent manner.