One almost hesitates to mention that The Hate U Give is drawn from so-called "young adult" literature, since these book-to-movie journeys have recently acquired a bit of bad name.
Multiple trilogies about maze-running teens moping about in some pointedly metaphorical sci-fi post-apocalypse have taken their toll.
But The Hate U Give is an entirely different entity, and a marked improvement. It's the vividly here-and-now story a teen named Starr (Amandla Stenberg), who witnesses an officer-involved shooting, then is forced to navigate the tricky aftermath, alternating between the mostly white world of her private school and her African American neighborhood, where the incident occurs.
Nothing about the story — adapted from Angie Thomas' bestseller — suggests that matters of race and class were ever simplified or made consumable for younger readers. At every turn, Starr's situation gets more nuanced and more engrossing, and in the hands of director George Tillman Jr., the movie maintains a confident, sweeping scope without every losing command, or its nerve.
Tillman starts with an efficient summary of Starr's family, centered on Starr's aspirational mother (Regina Hall), who has made sacrifices to send her children to that private school. Dad (Russell Hornsby) is an ex-con who in the penitentiary became an actual penitent, and upon his release embraced the responsibilities of fatherhood with ferocity.
He is wary not just of racism, but of neighborhood hazards he knows too well. He himself was arrested for selling drugs, and the dealer (Anthony Mackie) who controls the franchise still controls the territory, prowling in his black BMW, like some well-heeled Fagin, always looking to recruit, or to sell.
This is Starr's world, or one of them. By day, she puts on her skirt, knee socks, and deferential demeanor to attend the prep school, where she has sincere friendships with white friends, and a wealthy white boyfriend (K.J. Apa), who is genuinely and charmingly smitten with her.
"Why don't you invite me over to meet your folks?" he wonders, a with an aristocratic cluelessness.
Starr can't answer that question, at least not in a way that he would understand. Her character embodies Du Bois' double consciousness, and the complexity of living in these two often irreconcilable worlds — a tension beautifully and intuitively conveyed by Stenberg — is not so easily expressed.
She is forced to make a reckoning, though, when her unarmed friend (Algee Smith) is shot by a policeman, in her presence.
As it happens, this isn't the first traumatic event in Starr's young life, and her history adds sophisticated shading to the volatile issues in play — race and class, police misconduct, black-on-black crime. Tillman layers on points of view without losing track of them — Common has a small but critical role as Starr's uncle, an officer on the force.
There are a few stumbles — in one clunker of a scene, her earnest boyfriend is forced to stammer out the phrase "but I don't see color." Well, bro, let me help — your blazer is blue, your slacks are tan, and your Range Rover is black.
But the movie is mostly smart, and shrewd, and Stenberg is, in a word, terrific. Watching her, I kept thinking of her contemporary Saoirse Ronan — the way her eyes show a young woman alive to every situation, even behind a quiet facade. And when it's time to be unquiet, she nails that, too.