If there are 10 million stories on the streets of New York City, one wouldn’t know it from a representative sampling of present-day American independent cinema. The latest confirmation of this fact comes in the form of director Julius Onah’s The Girl Is In Trouble, a well-executed crime drama that, on a narrative level, finds itself too bogged down in the familiar to achieve genuine lift-off—let alone anything memorable.
Set in the lower East Side, the movie centers generally on a murder mystery and thematically on the very particular sort of strife and chaos that the young title character brings to a disparate group of men led less by their heads and more by baser emotions. When his younger brother, petty drug peddler Jesus (Kareem Savinon), goes missing, the volatile Angel (Wilmer Valderrama) sets out to find him. Signe (Alicja Bachleda) has a cell phone video that seems to both depict Jesus’s murder and implicate Nicholas (Jesse Spencer), the preppie scion of a powerful investment banker. When no one else takes her calls, Signe hooks up with August (Columbus Short), a bartender and would-be DJ whom she met in a bar a couple weeks previously. August takes Signe in, but finds himself having to lie—or at least obfuscate her involvement on her behalf—with Angel. Naturally, this has negative consequences that trickle down and impact everyone.
Onah has been tabbed by various publications as a young filmmaker to watch (he also has a feature in development with J.J. Abrams as producer), and for the most part it’s easy to see why. He delivers an attractive, engaging technical package that skirts and flirts with a lot of the clichés of precious indie filmmaking without ever quite completely tipping over into the sort of excess that would induce exasperation and disconnection in an already jaded viewer. Sometimes, though, he comes awfully close to that point of no return: Still photographs make up parts of narrated flashbacks, for example, and extraneous character details meant to lend extra “oomph” to third-act payoffs mostly just come across as over-stylized filler.
The basic problem with this mode of storytelling is that The Girl Is In Trouble doesn’t match the wild, wooly energy of movies like The Rules of Attraction, Lucky Number Slevin or other similarly amped-up, darkly comedic, absurdist crime flicks or travelogue thrillers. It wants to play in that sandbox, but only part-time: At its core, The Girl Is In Trouble represents the work of a new filmmaker caught between servicing his narrative in the best and most sensible way possible, and harboring grander, distracting notions of auteur-dom (Onah co-wrote the script with burgeoning big time producer Mayuran Tiruchelvam). Its most interesting elements—an infusion of class and ethnic specificity—are too often shunted to the side. In the end, the film implores us to take its very formulaic murder mystery very seriously, even as its construction undercuts that.
The acting helps mitigate a lot of the film’s worst offenses. If Valderrama is called on to mostly glower and rant, he delivers a convincingly sullen performance, and Bachleda has a certain emotional coolness that works for her character. Short, too, is quite good, except when required to lay down a couple overly demonstrative markers. If these characters are perhaps thinly sketched, Onah’s gift with actors is evident by the manner in which he creates a convincing backdrop against which these people from different urban milieus might meet and become entangled.
Alas, the script is what ultimately disappoints. Its inciting incident is just that, to a serviceable degree, but the reactions and interactions that really drive the conflict—obscuring the murder mystery’s grey truth until the film’s final act, when we flash back to Jesus’s death—are beyond contrived. There’s also the matter of the film’s narration by August, which too frequently meanders into esoteric (at best) and ham-fisted (at worst) musings. (One sample, setting up a dance club montage: “Music always makes me feel more alive than anything, and in moments like that my mind couldn’t help wander. I thought about how our ancestors lived in these buildings and on these streets, searching for a better tomorrow. And now here we were, searching for our own sense of possibility, as we dance on top of our history.”)
Yet, The Girl Is In Trouble revels in a number of solid, though piecemeal elements. Whether it is ultimately worth the trouble of one’s time, however, depends on a cineaste’s love for calling-card movies from players likely bound for greater success.
Director: Julius Onah
Writers: Julius Onah, Mayuran Tiruchelvam
Starring: Columbus Short, Alicja Bachleda, Wilmer Valderrama, Jesse Spencer, Mike Starr, Kareem Savinon, Paz de la Huerta, Miriam Colon
Release Date: April 3, 2015
Brent Simon is a longtime entertainment journalist and sworn enemy to auto-play website videos, as well as a member and former three-term president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.