There’s nothing like prolonged contemporary exposure to the fashions of the ’70s to make even the most important social issues of 20 years ago look dorky. Forget the racial and sexual bonfires of the era: Platform shoes and polyester jumpsuits were the great societal levelers, making equal-opportunity nerds of all who zipped up and stepped out.
Set in 1976, The Inkwell tries to make the most of the nostalgic indulgence inspired by the sight of all those fierce man-made fibers. This soft-‘n’-funky second film from Matty Rich, the director of 1991’s harsh-‘n’-brutish Straight Out of Brooklyn, is a coming-of-age story set in Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard, home to a well-heeled black community (the Inkwell is the local name for the neighborhood beach). There, Drew Tate (Larenz Tate) is a nerd among nerds-a 16-year-old loner whose best friend is a troll-like doll, and who, with his parents, visits Vineyard relatives for two weeks of maturing, sexual ripening, and experimenting with Afros.
This is a wonderful premise, abundant with possibilities, not least of which is an examination of conflicting black lifestyles, exemplified by the tensions between Drew’s father, Kenny (Joe Morton), a former Black Panther proudly outfitted in dashikis, and Kenny’s brother-in-law, Spencer (Glynn Turman), an active Republican proudly outfitted like a society yachtsman. This is also, however, where the 22-year-old Rich’s inexperience gets the better of him. Straight Out of Brooklyn, set in New York’s notorious Red Hook housing project, where he spent his early childhood, was ungainly and amateurish, but it caromed around with a raw anger that came from intimate knowledge of the territory. The Inkwell is just ungainly and amateurish. Characters and conflicts are never fully developed; moods swing from broad parody to sticky emotionalism. And in setting up what could be the deeply interesting subplot featuring Kenny and Spencer, Rich, apparently ill at ease, turns Spencer into a sputtering, slapstick buffoon; in effect, the young director disses his elder.
Had Rich been a kid in Oak Bluffs in 1976, he would have been the angry one plowing down Main Street on his skateboard, alternately showing off his hairpin turns, losing control of the board and annoying pedestrians, then scooting along again, fast and furious. And I would have been the one in the leopard-print bodysuit, thinking: Slow down, hotdog.