Fierce gravity and memories of love
Teen flick O refuses to pull its punches while Pageant hosts radiant The Road Home
Tim Blake Nelson’s film O is Shakespeare’s Othello made over as a tragedy among contemporary prep school basketball players. Screenwriter Brad Kaaya has supplied modern-day dialogue for the famous jealousy plot, and the results, while not exactly “Shakespearean,” have a fierce gravity to them and prove 10 times over that teen drama does not have to be silly and immature.
Indeed, the film’s young characters are refreshingly intelligent and articulate and the combination of their sensitivity to emotional subtleties and their natural fallibility makes for some potent drama quite apart from the violence of the story’s climax. And a set of fine naturalistic performances by the talented young cast puts it all across with unforced conviction.
This movie’s Othello is Odon “O” James (Mekhi Phifer), a basketball phenom and the only black student at an upscale boarding school in South Carolina. Its Desdemona is Odon’s supremely self-possessed girlfriend Desi (Julia Stiles), and the Iago of the tale is Hugo (Josh Hartnett), Odon’s teammate and best buddy, a chillingly shrewd judge of human character and a pathologically jealous schemer.
Issues of race and class ripple through the narrative’s drift toward disaster, but Nelson and Kaaya root Hugo’s Iago-like jealousy in family values warped by a culturally endorsed obsession with success at any cost.
Hugo’s semi-apoplectic father (Martin Sheen) is the school’s fiercely ambitious basketball coach, and his declaration that he loves his star player “like my own son” fatally compounds the rancor and envy that Hugo feels toward “O.”
The release of O was delayed in the aftermath of the Columbine killings and perhaps also by worry that America’s movie audiences are not yet ready for an R-rated teen drama that refuses to pull its punches. The tiny audience on hand for Saturday evening’s 7:20 show seemed a confirmation of those concerns and perhaps another sign that there is no great audience nearby for harsh drama with black characters in it (John Singleton’s Baby Boy also sank without a trace here, and elsewhere, earlier this summer).
Nelson’s film deserves better than that (and so, judging by Stanley Crouch’s eloquent defense of it in the New York Times, does Singleton’s).