There is no shortage on coming-of-age stories that resemble a 1970’s Nostalgia Museum in Branson, Missouri. There’s also no shortage of stories about kids coming to terms with the death of a parent. Certainly, there is no further need for another “You Got Served”-type underdog story where the heroes go onto someone else’s turf and have to prove worthy of respect. While Malcolm D. Lee’s Roll Bounce are all of these things at once, the film still possesses a genuine sweetness and an entertainingly oddball attention to detail. These traits are brought in large part by an unlikely cast that works very well together and Lee’s precise attention to coordinating his camera style with the film’s action. Roll Bounce achieves a small and rare success of these films where the audience member is actually transported to key moments of the character’s arc rather than the childhood of the filmmaker.
The film opens as a local South Chicago roller skating rink is closing. I never caught the actual year when Bounce is set, but the pan of a fresh-looking Star Wars Episode Four: A New Hope poster and multiple references to Saturday Night Fever and its wildly popular soundtrack suggests the summer of 1978, since Wars was released in May of 1977 and Fever followed in December of the same year. But I digress. Xavier or “X” (Bow Wow, who is impressive without the “L’il” moniker) and his friends bemoan the rest of their summers now that the main hangout will be “turned into a gun shop or chicken joint” like every other place in the ghetto. This is the closest Bounce gets to a political statement before being deflated by one character’s excitement about more choice in chicken selection. X lives with his sister Sonya (Busisiwe Irvin) and father Curtis (Chi McBride) in a nice little suburban area. His father is always dressed and preoccupied by work, although he has a little secret about that. He is mainly concerned with living in denial about his wife’s death and his kids feel the brunt of his emotional problems.
X and his crew – made up of social outcasts and smart mouths – make their way to the Sweetwater Rolling Rink where they learn their still-impressive skating skills are not to par with Sweetness (Wesley Jonathan) and his stable of satin-clad, effeminate, and multicultural dandies. (No less funny than this is Wayne Brady’s Afro-wigged DJ who officiates the rolling activities like a hipster Wolfman Jack.) Of course, they will give no mind to X and his crew and that will lead to the requisite “We challenge you to a skate-off” or whatever. What follows are the obligatory montages and the False Dawn/Real Dawns – False Hope/Real Hope moments that traditionally accompany these kinds of challenges. The saving grace is Lee’s (Spike’s cousin) camera style. His mix of speeding up the frames and capturing small moments in long shots gave his last effort, the gracefully funny Undercover Brother, a sense of visual bravado. When he captures X’s one-on-one efforts against Sweetness (“To break the tie, we must have a roll-off” or whatever), the scene is mesmerizing. Not only does Bow Wow appear to be doing his own stunts, but Lee filters so much light and music through the moment that it overwhelms the senses. It’s a beautiful piece in an otherwise tired storyline.
The really impressive part of Bounce falls to McBride. Not only is he the Authoritative Dad, he also has to balance financial woes and Wife Issues without seeming too melodramatic or too hopeless to care about. McBride, not an actor who’s ever been given much range, does it well. He and Bow Wow have nice, father-son chemistry that, even when it veers out of left field when X attacks his dad’s car, always feels real and sincere. In these moments, Lee puts down his box of cinema tricks and just lets the actors capture the moments for him. That’s a sign of a good director: One who can be visually arresting but knows when to let things rest.
That is also the case with Bounce’s supporting cast, including a hilarious pairing of Charlie Murphy with Mike Epps as Victor and Byron, the neighborhood garbage men. Murphy is given a speech towards the beginning of the film, where he gives extensive warning to X about the consequences of leaving trash out overnight, which rivals anything Murphy got to perform on Chapelle’s Show. These are the small touches of goofy humor that act as nice pre-occupations from the overall thrust of the movie.
Lee takes the tepid and predictable with Bounce and makes something of a character-based delight.