Why it’s the teen movie we all need to see (review)

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When Starr witnesses her best friend fatally shot by police, she must find her voice while facing polarized community pressures..
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Fall is a time for those “important” movies – biopics, Oscar contenders, Lady Gaga/Bradley Cooper superstar vehicles – and teen-oriented fare doesn’t normally break into that hallowed time. But “The Hate U Give” is one of the rare important teen films that needs to be seen by everybody.

Based on Angie Thomas’ 2017 young-adult novel, the profoundly affecting project takes themes of Black Lives Matter, police brutality and black identity and puts them in the thought-provoking story of an African-American girl stuck between cultures. However, “The Hate U Give” (★★★½ out of four; rated PG-13; in select theaters Friday, including New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Miami and Washington; expands nationwide Oct. 19) manages to go deeper still into where we are in the world, emphasizing youth activism and making the hard decision to speak out when necessary.

Starr Carter (an amazing Amandla Stenberg) is a 16-year-old from the poor, mostly black community of Garden Heights, where her protective dad Maverick (Russell Hornsby) owns the local grocery store. For school, though, Starr and her siblings go to private Williamson Prep about 40 minutes away in a rich white neighborhood because mom Lisa (Regina Hall) wants her kids to have a good education.

Starr never feels quite whole in her code-switching existence: She feels the side eye of mean girls at Williamson while spending time with her white boyfriend Chris (K.J. Apa) and doesn’t feel like she fits in at parties with her Garden Heights friends.

One fateful night riding home with her childhood friend Khalil (Algee Smith), they’re pulled over and – in a gut punch of a sequence – Starr watches in horror as Khalil reaches inside the car for his hairbrush and is gunned down by a white cop who thinks it was a gun.

Seeing cable news reports or reading articles about young African-Americans being shot and killed is one thing, but director George Tillman Jr. really immerses an audience in the heartache and hard feelings of loved ones in the aftermath of such a tragedy – and for Starr, it hurts even more since it’s her second close friend to die via a bullet.

“The Hate U Give” isn’t shy about revealing the emotions of everyone involved – even the side of the police comes through in a heated conversation between Starr and her Uncle Carlos (Common), a cop who understands his colleague’s perspective as well as his family’s. “We live in a complicated world,” he says. Her response: “It doesn’t seem that complicated to me.”

Starr ultimately decides to be the voice of Khalil but more importantly finds her own. “If you don’t see my blackness, you don’t see me,” Starr tells Chris in one of the superb scenes that reflect the real-life fights of many, from the Parkland survivors to Christine Blasey Ford, to have their voices heard. 

“The Hate U Give” is a coming-of-age tale that fits in nicely with a great slate of other significant films with similar themes this year. Yet because it deals with kids in their formative years, “The Hate U Give” does in its way carry more weight.

Maverick teaches Starr when she’s a small child about what to do when pulled over by police but reminds his kids that “just because we have to deal with this mess, don’t you ever forget that being black is an honor, because we come from greatness.” And with that foundation, Starr figures out how to best live her own life and fight systemic prejudice.

Like “BlacKkKlansman,” “Sorry to Bother You” and “Blindspotting” before it, “Hate” brings up vital discussions for a society wrestling with a lack of empathy, understanding and tolerance. They’re raising their voices with a cinematic megaphone, and it’s our turn to listen. 

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