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By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 02, 1994


Boaz Yakin
Sean Nelson;
Giancarlo Esposito;
Samuel L. Jackson;
Ron Brice;
N'Bushe Wright
Under 17 restricted

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Fresh,” Boaz Yakin’s hard-edged fable about a young boy’s perilous passage through a world of drugs, murder, prostitution and squalid despair, is urgently lyrical, right down to its final, haunting image. And in lead performer Sean Nelson, first-time filmmaker Yakin has a 12-year-old breath of fresh air whose beatific face could launch a thousand scripts.

Nelson, as a taciturn black preteen nicknamed Fresh, lives by wits and drug earnings in the dead-end zone of Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood. Adrift from immediate family, he’s holed up with an aunt (Cheryl Freeman) and 11 other children in a cramped tenement—which he takes every occasion to leave. An errand boy for heroin dealer Giancarlo Esposito and crack merchant Ron Brice, he sells on corners, picks up drug packages and makes house calls—before and after school.

Nelson operates with deadpan, business-like efficiency, rolling his eyes at sob stories from deadbeat clients, coolly rejecting sexual offers from cash-poor addicts and calmly palming bags to nervous white boys in their cars. Throughout these proceedings, his face is expressionless—but more from self-protection than pitilessness. He knows the cruel rules, the rhythms and the players of this world, but he’s determined not to let them destroy his innocence.

Nelson also maintains links with more positive figures in his life, including his destitute father (Samuel L. Jackson), who plays chess with Nelson and dispenses board-game-of-life advice; his drug-addicted sister (N’Bushe Wright), captive to her junk-supplying boyfriend; and a sweet cheerleader in his class (Natima Bradley), who turns Nelson’s head wherever she goes. But they are no help to him when matters inevitably take a turn for the worse.

When tragic and dangerous circumstances force him to take terrible action, the boldest of his life, Nelson’s rather brilliant scheme—in the face of formidable adversity—is an exhilarating surprise. His youthful genius emerges with the delicate wonder of a butterfly.

With “Midnight Cowboy” cinematographer Adam Holender’s pristine images, Stewart Copeland’s velvet, postmodern score and Nelson’s one-of-a-kind presence, Yakin transforms a gritty street scenario into something mystical and enduring. The pimps and dealers, crack junkies and gangsters, assume almost-allegorical significance, making Nelson’s fate matter like nothing else. One superbly constructed scene, which involves an outburst of gunfire, scrambling crowds and—after the smoke clears—a shocking turning point in Nelson’s life, will still the hearts of any audience. In a harmonic convergence of narrative, cinematic expertise and performance, Nelson’s chilled expression—and this movie—will stay with you like a closely held, personal memory.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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