2018’s been a good year for the Young-Adult novel film adaptation subgenre, hasn’t it? It’s nice to see this strain of American cinema having such a banner considering that I’ve always felt its gotten too much of a bum rap from people always associating it with Twilight and its various knock-off’s rather than also considering that the high-quality likes of The Fault In Our Stars or The Spectacular Now also qualify as entries in this subgenre. Twilight isn’t good (though the hate for it seems a wee bit overblown at this point), but judging the entire YA-novel film adaptation realm just by it is like judging all of superhero movies on Batman v. Superman.
For proof of what this subgenre is capable of when it’s firing on all cylinders, just check out The Hate U Give, a new feature hailing from director George Tillman Jr. from a screenplay by the late Audrey Wells based on the book of the same name by Angie Thomas. The story of The Hate U Give follows Star (Amandla Sternberg) as a Junior in High School with a loving family and a daily identity crisis stemming from how she feels she always has to conform to fit in, particularly at the predominately white High School she attends. One night, while coming home from a party with her friend Khalil Harris (Algee Smith), she and Khalil are stopped by a white cop who ends up shooting and killing the unarmed Khalil.
This horrifying atrocity shakes Star to her core and ends up having an impact on her entire life, particularly once it becomes clear she’s going to have to testify in front of a Grand Jury on the matter, which could draw the ire of notorious criminal King (Anthony Mackie). Despite being aimed at a younger audience than typical prestige dramas, The Hate U Give, much like fellow 2018 YA-novel adaptation gem Love, Simon, uses details like more overt dialogue (characters are constantly talking in either big expansive monologues or in back-and-forth exchanges that eschew subtelty in a good way) to unflinchingly confront real-world issues that many movies tend to just push towards the margins if they even address them at all.
A gripping opening scene sets the stage for how The Hate U Give is going to do this by depicting Star’s father, Maverick (Russell Hornsby), giving a young Star and her siblings a talk about what to do when a cop pulls them over. Clearly, The Hate U Give is actually more in touch with reality than stereotypically grown-up movies like Crash in how it confronts systemic racism, how it manifests in systems of power like law enforcement as well as how those elements create, to quote Hamilton, “…an endless cycle of vengeance and death as the only descendant.” In a brilliant move, the script by Audrey Wells (presumably taking a cue from the original novel) makes sure to not have the story be about resolving a large-scale crisis like systemic racism, that would be too tidy and unrealistic. Instead, this is a tale about Star coming to terms with her own identity while being bombarded with all the difficulties that occur to someone who dares to challenge the status quo, it’s a fascinating coming-of-age story set against equally compelling social upheaval.
Aside from some oddly handled details like how the story really has to strain itself to get all the main characters into one location for the finale set at Maverick’s store and a clunky transition from a tense ending to an upbeat epilogue, the script by Audrey Wells is a well-done piece of work, particularly in how it depicts Star’s personal narrative that culminates in a brilliant depiction of how she participates in a large-scale protest. It’s also noteworthy how the writing by Wells makes sure that this resonates with modern-day teenagers (there are plenty of instances of 2018 slang and the names of major social networks getting dropped in the dialogue) without feeling like it’s trying too hard to be hip, it just feels like it’s accurately representing what it’s like to be a teen in the modern age.
George Tillman Jr.’s direction is almost as assured the writing by Audrey Wells, particularly in the way he handles the aces cast here that ranges from Amandla Sternberg’s truly terrific and emotionally gripping lead performance that serves as the beating heart of this piece to Russell Hornsby giving perhaps the best performance of the whole film as the protagonists father, this guy exudes equal measures of warmth and determination so naturally. The Young-Adult novel film adaptation subgenre is as capable of churning out clunkers as any subgenre, but if anyone thinks it’s incapable of producing truly thoughtful films with superb writing and performances, just show them The Hate U Give, that’ll change their mind quickly!