Movie adaptations of Y/A (young adult) novels have been growing in popularity since the early 1980s when books by S.E. Hinton, including “The Outsiders”, “That Was Then…This Is Now” and “Rumblefish”, hit the big screen. In later years, the “Harry Potter” and “Twilight” cinematic franchises took the genre to another level. For a while there, film adaptations of dystopian Y/A fiction, including “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent” series were dominating. But the recent dismal failures of “The Darkest Minds” and “A Wrinkle in Time” indicate that that trend has (thankfully) come to an end. Instead, the dystopian future has been traded for the bleak present.
George Tillman Jr.’s “The Hate U Give” (20th Century Fox), based on Angie Thomas’ best-selling and acclaimed book, is something new in this realm. Aside from addressing real-world issues that are on the minds of people of all ages, it boldly embraces the radical power to make change that is in the hands of younger generations. In other words, it’s a perfect movie for the post-Stoneman Douglas world.
Protagonist Starr (Amandla Stenberg, who can now be forgiven for the misstep of “The Darkest Minds”), lives with her supportive and protective parents -- nurse mother Lisa (Regina Hall in an unforgettable performance) and ex-con store-owner father Maverick (Russell Hornsby) -- along with older half-brother Seven (Lamar Johnson) and younger brother Sekani (TJ Wright) in what she will tell you is the “’hood”. Starr and her siblings attend a private school in a better part of town, which creates an issue for Starr. At school, she puts on one face, speaks a certain way, and excels at being a good student and fitting in with her privileged classmates. Back at home, and especially with friends who have known her all her life, she has to be another Starr altogether.
After a fight breaks out and shots are fired at a neighborhood party where Starr is a guest, she leaves with old friend Khalil (Algee Smith). As kids they used to play “Harry Potter” (they even had wands with their names inscribed on them). But tragedy struck when another friend was gunned down in front of them in a drive-by when they were only children. Much to Starr’s chagrin, Khalil is now involved in drug dealing and under the thumb of evil gang-leader King (Anthony Mackie). On their way home, Khalil and Starr are pulled over by a trigger-happy cop (Drew Starkey), who shoots and kills Khalil.
The impact on Starr is nothing less than devastating. In addition to having to balance her school and home lives, she now has to live with witnessing the killing of another close friend. Aside from affecting her homelife, the stress causes problems with her boyfriend Chris (K.J. Apa), and her best friends Hailey (Sabrina Carpenter) and Maya (Megan Lawless). To make matters worse, the plan to keep her identity a secret fails in multiple ways. A TV interview in which her face is pixelated and voice distorted backfires. She is called on to testify before the grand jury, but the officer is not indicted. Making matters worse, Starr and her family are being threatened by King.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Tillman’s adaptation is the way that it manages to strike a balance between the serious nature of the material and finding ways to work in humor to break up the tension. The scene where Starr’s parents finally meet Chris is a perfect example. For that, screenwriter (and filmmaker) Audrey Wells deserves praise.