Lauren Miller ’22 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
People don’t expect much from young adult book-to-film adaptations anymore. Since The Hunger Games came to a close – or since Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 hit theaters, depending on who you ask – YA adaptations have been one box office flop and critical disappointment after another. Of course, there’s been the occasional exception; Netflix’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is the most recent example. But, on the whole, “Based on the Bestselling YA Novel,” has become a “Warning: Keep Clear,” sign for films.
The Hate U Give might not be anything more than another one of these exceptions. If it is, it’s probably the best one. But if it sparks a new wave of excellent YA book-to-film adaptations, no one should be surprised.
The Hate U Give, based on Angie Thomas’ New York Times Bestseller of the same name, is the story of Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg). She carefully divides her life between her predominantly black neighborhood of Garden Heights and the rich, mostly white, private school Williamson that she attends. When she witnesses her childhood friend Khalil (Algee Smith) shot and killed by a white cop, this balance collapses in on itself.
This film works as well as it does due to two major factors. First, Audrey Wells’s screenplay has taken only the best parts of the book and focused them into a tight story. It moves at a rapid pace, while still being the issue movie it’s meant to be. It would be easy to present the film from only Starr’s perspective and say this is the one right way to handle these situations. But The Hate U Give doesn’t settle for easy, comforting answers. It seeks out every possible angle of the central conflict and then forces the audience to sit with it without any simple resolution. There’s too much going on for those sort of placations. Anything that doesn’t contribute directly to the central conflict is jettisoned or absorbed into something that does so no scene feels wasted. From the moment the first gunshot rings out, there’s no moment to catch your breath except the ones Wells allows. It’s constant tension, building and building until something explodes.
And it’s portrayed wonderfully by the second major factor, which is Amandla Stenberg’s performance. She’s an absolute star and this movie proves it. So much of the film’s emotional power rest on her shoulders: her joy, her grief, her conflict, her anger. It’s easy to see how, in the hands of another performer, the story could become melodramatic and cliched. But from the first scene, Stenberg makes sure you understand that Starr is a real teenage girl. She doesn’t have to acquire grief or pain or anger; that’s all already in her. Stenberg turns this into a journey of learning how to let those emotions out and how to use them to your advantage. It’s subtle, grounded work and that’s riveting to watch.
Which goes for every actor in the film. The Hate U Give is about community and every member of the supporting cast brings a sense of lived-in reality to their characters, even when they only get a few scenes. Algee Smith is so charming and honest as Khalil that you feel his loss just as much as Starr. Dominique Fishback and Lamar Johnson, as Kenya and Seven, respectively, both have a strong handle on their comedic and dramatic sides, playing them up when necessary. And Russell Hornsby, as Starr’s reformed gangster father, Maverick, steals every scene he can with his own mirror of Stenberg’s rage and grief. If anyone’s a weak link, it’s Anthony Mackie as drug lord King. He can’t quite transcend the natural charm he shows so well in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to make the character as terrifying as he’s meant to be.
At times, the film gets heavy-handed and trite. This is a teen movie, after all, and there’s only so much one can do to break out of genre conventions. Starr’s expositional voice over is necessary to an extent, but the sporadic use of it becomes distracting and redundant. It’s a crutch used to force feed information the filmmakers didn’t trust the audience to get on their own. One can’t help but wonder if the film would have been stronger, and more visually dynamic, without it. Especially in the final scenes, when the voiceover comes back to wrap up the story and hand the message over to the audience like a warmed up baby bottle. It’s aggressively moralistic and especially odd from a movie that, up to that point, insisted on not offering one right answer. But then again, K,J. Apa spends the runtime filling out Starr’s underwritten and generic boyfriend Chris to moderate success, so maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that the film offers a rushed happy ending.
Still, the final images of Starr bring about the exact feelings of hope this movie is all about. Tupac Shakur said that thug life stood for, “The Hate U Give Little Infants F***s Everybody,” the quote that inspired the film’s title. If that’s true, then the opposite must also be true, and the love you give little infants makes the world better for everybody. This is what The Hate U Give is all about. People have to break cycles of hatred and violence with unconditional, unrestrained love. Even though it’s hard, even though we’re hurt and angry, spreading more hatred into the world just f***s everybody. The only way forward is with our hearts and minds open, even to the stuff that’s a little gushy and cliche.
Who can argue with that?
Overall Grade: B+
Watch The Trailer: