Tribeca Film Review: ‘Gully’ Has Style But Little Substance

2019 TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL: We will likely never see an adaptation of the video game “Grand Theft Auto.” In a roundabout way, “Gully” is proof of why. Taking that sort of game as a factor for why teens might act out in extreme ways, the film is all surface level. There is style galore on display, along with some interesting performances, but the actual message is nonexistent. There is simply nothing this movie has to say. Video games and the GTA franchise/its brethren aren’t the focus here, but even throwing it in is part of the myriad ways this effort is so misguided.

From the jump, “Gully” goes off the rails. Quick cuts, violent imagery, and rushed momentum can create a sense of urgency, but there’s no reason for the immediacy. While never becoming gratuitous or offensive, the picture does lack forward momentum. Being kinetic is not enough; one needs to care why circumstances arise, and that’s not the case here.

Set in what’s described as a slightly dystopian version of Los Angeles, three friends find themselves acting out. Dissatisfied with their lots in life and victims of extremely violent childhoods, Calvin (Jacob Latimore), Jesse (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), and Nicky (Charlie Plummer) are caught in a cycle of disruption. They’re smart and introspective, though finding violence as the only acceptable outlet. They have a video game they play, initially as a distraction, but soon as inspiration. One day, the thought comes up to bring the game out into the real world.

Calvin, Jesse, and Nicky slowly begin going off the deep end. The world becomes their own personal video game. There’s a price to be paid by the conclusion, but for the longest time, they just float along. Any semblance of trying to explain why is given lip service at best – things just happen. Exploring masculinity in this way has been done before. “Bellflower” is a masterpiece. “Gully,” however, is not.

Despite all the problems in the film, Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Jacob Latimore do deliver fascinating performances. They’re really the only element that works in “Gully.” Harrison Jr. has a charismatic intensity about him that shines through the nonsense around him, while Latimore is a nuclear bomb of energy. He is very much on the film’s wavelength, though he’s able to channel it into something compelling. Charlie Plummer is the lesser aspect of the troika, though still fine, he just feels more like a cliche. A-list supporting players like Amber Heard and Terrence Howard are wasted, while other cast members like John Corbett, Robin Givens, and Jonathan Majors fare no better.

Graduating from music videos, director Nabil Elderkin is all style over substance. To be fair, scribe Marcus J. Guillory is all over the place with his screenplay, but they pair poorly with each other. Elderkin brings the style of music videos to his cinematic debut, which could have been the right choice, had there been more control elsewhere. However, Guillory is just throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks, so the final product is deeply messy. Attempts to shock fall flat, as does a late stage lurch towards emotion and tragedy. It just does not work.

Ambition is not lacking in “Gully.” It’s just the execution that falls decidedly short. The material, in different hands, could have been massaged into something compelling. Likewise, Elderkin could be a director to watch out for in the future. This just wasn’t a good fit. Beyond its Tribeca bow, don’t expect to see this one in any notable way. Several cuts below, the film is destined for obscurity.

“Gully” debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 27 and is currently seeking distribution.

GRADE: (★½)

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