It says something unfortunate that a movie based on a book that came out in 2017, which was in turn inspired by a 2009 shooting, still feels as current as it does. Yet, that's part of the point that The Hate U Give tries to make. The movie does what all great movies try to do, shining a light on an aspect of humanity in an attempt to get you to see it from a new perspective, and for every person who sees it, it will likely succeed.
Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) is a teenage girl who is caught between two worlds. She, her parents, and her two brothers live in a part of town that would politely be referred to as the "other side of the tracks." The area is mostly black and mostly poor. However, in an attempt to help raise them out of such a life, Starr's parents send her and her siblings to a private school in another part of town. This area is far better off, and not coincidentally, far more white. Starr sees herself as living two lives, referring to her "at school" life as Starr 2.0, where she does her best to fit in and be as unlike her "home" self as possible. She's got friends (Megan Lawless and Sabrina Carpenter) and even a white boyfriend (KJ Apa), all of which she keeps at arm's length from the rest of her life.
However, Starr's two worlds collide together when she finds herself in the passenger seat of a car driven by a friend from the neighborhood, Khalil (Algee Smith), when he is shot and killed by a white cop with a nervous trigger finger during a questionable traffic stop. Starr is forced to confront both of her lives and decide what she values most as she's the only one who can speak about what really happened.
The first thing of note that The Hate U Give does well is show that not all movies based on YA novels need to be about supernatural creatures or dystopian worlds. The Hate U Give's history as a YA novel simply means that the movie is designed to speak to a wider audience than something with this sort of gravity might otherwise be trying to do. Having said that, the film also never treats the audience like they are actually children. The story is about a teen dealing with her first adult decisions, and so they are given the appropriate weight.
The biggest "problem" with The Hate U Give may be the film's predictability. Few of the plot turns are going to be very surprising, but then again, the reason they won't be a surprise is that we've seen them play out on the news too many times. The victim's character will be brought into question. Some will seemingly worry more about the future of the shooter than the family of the victim. It's predictable. It's supposed to be. That's the point.
One of Starr's friends turns out to be less than friendly when Starr's activism begins to sprout. Starr's boyfriend is well-meaning, but he doesn't actually know what he's talking about when he spouts platitudes about race to his girlfriend. We know these people. We've been these people. In some instances. we still are these people.
This sort of material could easily come across as too over the top and preachy, but it never does. The tightrope being walked by The Hate U Give is handled successfully thanks to a strong screenplay written by Audrey Wells (A Dog's Purpose) and directed by George Tillman Jr. (the Barbershop films).
What may be the most interesting about it, however, isn't what it says or does, but what it avoids doing. The officer involved in the shooting could have been played as a stronger "villain," but that doesn't happen. In fact, after the incident, the cop is barely seen again. The movie isn't about him, or his perspective. It's about understanding what happens on the other side of the gun and the systemic problems at play.
The role of Starr is, quite literally, a star-making turn for Amandla Stenberg. She carries the entire film. Its power depends on her. Happily, she is up to the task and then some. The story asks a lot. From joy at one end of the spectrum to rage at the other, you feel all of it. While it's difficult to guess if an actress this young will actually garner an Oscar nomination, it seems impossible she won't at least be part of the conversation. We'll certainly be seeing more of her. Additional shout-outs need to be given to Russell Hornsby as Starr's father who is as supporting and nurturing as any cinema father in recent memory. Points also go to Anthony Mackie simply for being willing to play a role about as far from his MCU type as it is possible to be.
The Hate U Give also never tries to simplify the point it's making for the audience. This is a messy and complicated topic and the film treats it as messy and complicated. The answers aren't easy, or at least they may not be easy to accept, but that's real life. While the film is guilty of wrapping itself up perhaps a little too neatly than it should, nothing is fixed by the end. The struggle continues, but maybe it has moved forward. It's a start.