In 96 Minutes, we’re once again given unrelated characters who end up colliding in unexpected ways—think Crash or Traffic or one of those multi-story movies where a larger statement about class and race is made at the sake of certain contrivances we either buy into or not (or both in equal measure). Here it involves two sets of two: college students Carly and Lena (Brittany Snow and Christian Serratos) and high school kids Dre and Kevin (Evan Ross and J. Michael Trautmann). All have their own personal dramas going on: a cheating boyfriend and a distant father for the young women; the question of whether Kevin will become a gang-banger or if Dre will stay out a gang and leave his crime-ridden neighborhood.
How the four meet is only really explained about two-thirds of the way in. The film starts off with the four of them in a stolen car and Dre freaking out—Kevin has shot Lena in the head. She’s still alive and needs to go to the hospital. The premise means to deliver a big jolt to the audience and to strap us in for the suspense of what will follow in the next 96 minutes. What lost me from the start, however, was the script and direction.
The director, first-timer Aimee Lagos, uses hand-held throughout the film, but it doesn’t add tension or unease, it’s simply unnecessary (rather, I notice it too much in relation to what’s going on,). The dialog is either too obvious (such as Dre’s girlfriend warning him about hanging out with the wrong crowd) or snappy (a death penalty debate in Carly’s class where not a word can sink in). Little moments do work, like when Kevin turns up the car radio and they all listen to it for 30 seconds, lost in their thoughts and almost forgetting the shooting, until Dre turns it down.
The movie cuts back to what led to the shooting—material right out of teenage melodrama. Some of the exchanges between Lena and Carly are right out of a lame Beverly Hills 90210 episode, and we see what happens maybe on a frequent basis to African American Dre when a couple of Atlanta cops stop him on the street. The moment’s unbelievable not because of the cops’ actions but because of the bad acting. Meanwhile, his white friend Kevin tries to get accepted into a small gang by stealing a car. This storyline could have worked if Lagos knew how these kids talked; they need a more realistic cadence.
Maybe for a 13- or 14-year-old audience, this will do fine. For adults, we’ve seen better. While in general the acting is acceptable, mostly from Snow and Ross (Serratos is left to be the Tim Roth a la Reservoir Dogs, mostly bleeding to death), many of these kids need a lesson from Larry Clark’s films. Even the cross-cutting from the night to earlier in the day is too contrived to be edgy and suspenseful.
The last five to ten minutes are, somehow, believable and build to a final conversation I really appreciated. But it simply comes a little too late for what is at heart an after-school special with cliché characters, an overwrought soundtrack, and poor attention to characters’ psychologies.