REVIEW: Rockaway [2019]

Score: 6/10 | ★ ★ ½


Rating: NR | Runtime: 90 minutes | Release Date: January 11th, 2019 (USA)
Studio: Paladin / Gravitas Ventures
Director(s): John J. Budion
Writer(s): John J. Budion

“The smoke’s getting closer”

John (Frankie J. Alvarez) puts on the television to find a replay of a 1994 NBA Championship game with John Starks draining threes. Rather than create a pang of nostalgia for the years when his hometown team was good, however, the image takes him back to a childhood full of tragedy and hope. He was just a kid back then (Maxwell Apple) with an unhealthy infatuation for the former Knicks star and his number three—one his brother Anthony (Keidrich Sellati) did all he could to foster as an escape from the abuse suffered at the hands of their father (Wass Stevens). To them Starks was a symbol of persevering despite a rough past (expulsions and jail before finally finishing college). He proved that things could get better.

Inspired by writer/director John J. Budion‘s own youth, Rockaway shows us the ways in which that hope could be fostered. Whether it’s the promise of their mother (Marjan Neshat) to finally leave their father or the boys’ crude plan to kill him as a means of making sure he couldn’t follow, their lives are working towards a point of no return. So invested in this desire to survive against long odds without anyone to trust, Anthony and John almost miss out on the opportunity to meet new friends. Too afraid to trust in an outsider to understand their plight, it became easier to push away everyone who dared come close. Only through isolation could these brothers perfect their strategy and act before Dad harmed someone else.

Billy (Harrison Wittmeyer) wouldn’t take no for an answer. Astute enough to see the bruises and acknowledge the emotional walls built around them, he helps cajole the siblings into joining his friends for basketball. With brains (Tanner Flood‘s Brian), brawn (James DiGiacomo‘s Dom), and humor (Colin Critchley‘s Sal), the group proved appealingly fun for Anthony to at least give them a try. Their unprovoked ability to put little John under wing and treat him as an equal ultimately epitomizes their heart with a violent yet uplifting baseball game revealing their strength. Just as Anthony knows he can’t defeat his father without John’s help, he also won’t stop himself from letting vengeance transform him into that which he hates without the love these new friends heroically supply.

That’s why we need these two boys to legitimately think about killing their father. We need it to be a possibility because only then does the underlying message about why it’s wrong work. They look at themselves like John Starks pulling up at the buzzer for one shot to change their lives forever, but a basketball game isn’t the same as life. Murder has consequences that go well beyond the law too. Even if Anthony’s plan is flawless and makes it seem like an accident, the psychological anguish and guilt of the act (justified or not) will cripple him. And the temper wrought alongside the vindictive pleasure of victory will risk his future by putting him on a road towards similar ends with his hands inflicting the damage.

So there’s a lot happening beneath the surface of these pre-teens causing trouble in the 1990s—more than even Anthony’s desperate project. While they beat-up preppy kids from a private school, talk about naked woman, and serenade the pizza parlor owner’s daughter, they’re also giving John a sense of community and safety he’s never had outside of his brother’s arms. Suddenly there’s a reason to stay just as the moment to leave arrives and his young brain must wonder if the homicide route is better because it means they can stay with their friends. Either way his imagination projects superhero powers upon everyone just like those bestowed upon Starks. Billy and the boys become his team just like the Knicks. If one wins, the other must follow suit.

That’s not how reality works, though, so credit Budion for refusing to let his film pretend it does. Allowing John to see magic all around him (the real Starks even shows up to participate in an animated fantasy sequence) doesn’t mean he’s living inside a fairy tale. Villains aren’t so easily disposed with or without remorse asking for forgiveness. And happy endings surely aren’t a given—especially not without their fair share of hardship to combat beforehand. Relationships are complex and actions aren’t without context either. It might be composed of superficial excuses unable to sway anyone to sympathy, but it’s there just the same. Finding the balance necessary to vanquish your foes without destroying yourself in the process isn’t a guarantee because vengeance isn’t protection. It’s another excuse.

Rockaway isn’t a perfect film (its self-financed production securing a US theatrical release proves inspirational nonetheless), but it gets this core messaging correct. Some of the more emotional transitions are abrupt with meta parallels to Stand By Me proving narratively convenient, but the result is always poignant enough to overcome any shaky pathways there. Where it really shines, however, is its desire to retain the darkness that’s intrinsic to its drama—something we shouldn’t shield our children from since youth doesn’t exempt us from the cruel world in which we live. There’s swearing, trauma, and violent abuse, but none of it feels forced. The acting might be unavoidably raw, but the circumstances are wholly authentic. Will you succumb to unfair anguish alone or dare to conquer it together?


photography:
courtesy of the film’s website

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