Sometimes you can't help but feel you're in for a bad time at the movies. After viewing the trailer for Roll Bounce, it seemed to have all the makings of a disaster... a sort of Saturday Night Fever with wheels. A soundtrack full of popular songs (often a cheap attempt to attract 40-somethings to an otherwise lame film) further raised my suspicions.
Thankfully, I was pleasantly surprised in the opening minutes to be introduced to a cast of older African-American teens. Although they live on Chicago's south side, they break many of the typical movie stereotypes. They are simply depicted as intelligent, fun-seeking kids living in modest houses. We don't see any of the usual drugs and guns, or hear a litany of four-letter words.
This refreshing start leads to the next surprise: A reasonably interesting plot. Xavier (Bow Wow) is a young man grieving over the recent death of this mother. He and his little sister live with their father, Curtis Smith (Chi McBride), a mechanical engineer who is also struggling with the loss of his wife and the prospect of raising his children alone.
The father-son relationship forms one storyline in this film. The other revolves around Xavier, his friends, and their favorite pastime: Roller-skating.
It's 1978, and Chicago--like many cities at that time--has an active roller-skating culture. Xavier (known as X ), Mixed Mike (Khleo Thomas), Bernard (Nick Cannon), Naps (Rick Gonzalez), Boo (Marcus Paulk), and Junior (Brandon T. Jackson) are all passionate about the four-wheeled sport. Joining them during this pivotal summer is Tori (Jurnee Smollett), the new gal on the block. She just wants to hang out and have fun with the guys, but she isn't the swiftest kid on a pair of skates.
In an impressive extension of kindness, X does his best to teach Tori the basics by having her follow him on his paper route. This young man's patience and understanding underscores his serious coming-of-age attitude, as well as explaining his determination to become a championship skater.
When their aging neighborhood rink shuts down, the gang is forced to find another venue. The boys check out a flashy disco-like rink in a trendier district known for hosting the ultimate roller-skating competition. A few jibes from a cool skater named Sweetness (Wesley Jonathan) leaves our heroes determined to pit their skills against these literal high rollers (who also look twice their age). The upcoming contest means intense practicing, which keeps them busy for days. Meanwhile, X also needs to settle the anger he still feels over his mother's passing, which is beginning to destroy his relationship with his dad.
This rink isn't completely clear of content obstacles. While there are relatively few profanities, parents will still find some moments of sexual innuendo. Yet, the overall tone of the film is quite innocent, and the positive relationships depicted help to overshadow these points of possible concern.
Notwithstanding the relatively inexperienced cast, the performances in Roll Bounce are all worthy of your box office donation. Bow Wow proves he is capable of some real drama, and holds his character well in the vast variety of scenes. He and Chi McBride also have a natural cadence between them that makes the film easy to watch. And for guys like me who were doing a little disco in '78--the music is great.