Don't fuck with Fresh. He may be only twelve years old, but Machiavelli himself couldn't play the street any better than this pint-size prince.
Fresh Sr. is a speed-chess hustler in New York City's Washington Square Park -- "Bobby Fischer? Put him on speed and I'll chew his ass up" -- who tutors his son in the game. But dad (Samuel L. Jackson) isn't exactly living large; he resides in a rotting trailer home, drinks warm beer, and can meet with his son only clandestinely (why he's estranged from the boy and who has prohibited him from interacting with Fresh is never made clear; it's merely one of a number of loose threads that you're better off not pulling on too hard for fear of unraveling the whole thing). Fresh has bigger plans. He takes the lessons he learns from the board game and applies them to the blood-stained playgrounds and treacherous back alleys of the Brooklyn projects where he lives.
With dad's influence limited to the occasional chess match in the park, smooth-talking heroin pusher Esteban (Giancarlo Esposito) and hot-tempered crack king Corky (Ron Brice) take turns filling the father-figure void. Fresh plays horse jockey for Esteban one or two days per week, and steers crack for Corky the rest of the time, all the while salting away his money. Each of the rivals takes the kid under his respective wing, impressed by Fresh's nerve, quiet intelligence, and honesty. Each also takes a turn imparting his version of wisdom to the eager youngster. "It's like banking, only it's more secure and you don't pay taxes," Esteban says of his calling (which he considers far more gentlemanly than dealing cocaine).
Today Fresh is the protege; tomorrow he'll be the man. And Fresh, despite the remonstrations of his saintly aunt and the eleven Nintendo-playing, TV-watching cousins with whom he shares an apartment, likes it like that. That is, until his mentors screw up. One of Corky's men, a temperamental dealer named Jake, blows away two of Fresh's innocent young classmates in cold blood. And Esteban brazenly puts the moves on Fresh's strung-out sister (N'Bushe Wright), going so far as to force the boy's complicity. Fresh may be down, but now he wants out. Suddenly it's speed chess with human pieces, and you just know who will emerge the grand master.
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Fresh is an audacious movie for a lot of reasons. For starters it stars a young kid with no prior feature-film experience (Sean Nelson). It's a gritty morality play set in a predominantly black and Latin milieu, written and directed by a white man (Boaz Yakin) whose previous claim to fame was his authorship of the forgettable 1990 Clint Eastwood-Charlie Sheen vehicle The Rookie. No popular rap or hip-hop acts bolster the soundtrack. But the neatest trick of all is that Fresh manages to be an absorbing movie about drug-dealing and life in the projects that glamorizes neither violence nor the gangsta lifestyle.
Oddly enough the film feels fresh even though you've seen much of it before. Sugar Hill's visual flair meets the somber camerawork of Midnight Cowboy's Adam Holender. Menace II Society's fatalism and Boyz N the Hood's street savvy alternate with the young chess-freak element of Searching for Bobby Fischer. And most of all, spunky ensemble acting by a clutch of young performers with a preteen in the lead gives the project life just as it did in Spike Lee's Crooklyn (although Lee's Brooklyn of the Seventies bears little resemblance to Yakin's Nineties version).
Like eight-year-old Zelda Harris in Lee's film, Sean Nelson dominates Fresh. He appears in nearly every scene, with the success of the entire movie resting upon the actor's tiny shoulders. And he's up to the task. You can't take your eyes off of him. Whether conveying puppy love to his grade-school sweetheart while she skips rope, registering disbelief at the plump middle-age homemaker who offers him milk and freshly baked chocolate-chip cookies while she wraps a heroin pickup for him, showering disdain upon the pathetic crack whore offering him sex for rock, conning Esteban and Corky into waging war against each other, or going stone cold to silence the lowlife pusher dissing his sister, Fresh's eyes tell the story.
It's an amazing, subtle performance by Nelson, whose character speaks little and keeps his emotions bottled up tight. Fresh the movie rides on the credibility of Fresh the character. Luckily, the kid is a natural, as dead-on and unaffected as only kids can be. At one point Corky tells Fresh, "Only reason you ain't the man is because you're too goddamn little." Say the same for Nelson.