By Owen Gleiberman
Updated September 16, 1994 at 04:00 AM EDT

Fresh, who’s all of 12, is sensitive, soft-spoken, loyal—and as cold-blooded a street operator as the murderous dealers for whom he runs ”bricks” of heroin. There’s shocking resonance to the notion of a grade-school boy who’s become a criminal out of sheer pragmatism. And Sean Nelson, who plays Fresh, is a wondrous young actor. If only the movie were as subtle as he is. After a rich, anecdotal first half, Fresh, inspired by the lessons of his derelict-chess-whiz father (Samuel L. Jackson), ends up setting his own human chess game in motion. You may not believe a minute of it, though you won’t forget Nelson’s face.