What does the next generation of storytellers look like in 2018? If YA movies have been smeared with a wide, beige-colored brush for too long, The Hate U Give feels like the welcome crest of a new wave: not bland chronicles of sparkle-skinned vampires or dance-squad rivalries but real, often painfully relevant tales about race and justice and millennial identity.
At 16, Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) should be too young to know what code-switching means, but it’s she how lives, even if that’s not the name she calls it by. At home, she has to be ready to recite the tenets of the Black Panthers’ 10-point program for her father on command; at her elite private high school, she’s compelled to be the model minority, the girl who studiously avoids the slang and streetwear her white classmates coopt so breezily.
She also shouldn’t have to watch the life bleed out of her childhood best friend, Khalil (Algee Smith) after a routine traffic stop goes wrong. Her dad (Russell Hornsby), an ex-convict turned community activist and dedicated family man, has drilled her in how to respond to the police since she was nine years old: Cooperate, stay calm, always keep your hands where they can see them. But she can’t save Khalil, and when he dies, the careful wall she’s built between her two worlds starts to come apart.
Working from Angie Thomas’ bestselling 2017 novel, director George Tillman Jr. (Soul Food, Notorious) occasionally stumbles into a clumsy or schematic moment, but his movie never feels like a lecture, and Starr isn’t an example or symbol for a movement; she’s a girl made achingly real by Stenberg, whose vulnerable, visceral performance carries nearly every scene. She has help from a uniformly great supporting cast, including Regina Hall as her fiercely protective mother, Issa Rae as an activist lawyer hoping to get her to testify, and Common as the police-offer uncle with his own take on black and blue lives.
To the deep confusion of her dad, Starr also has a white boyfriend (Riverdale’s KJ Apa), and her interactions with him and her friends at school offer some of Hate’s best lessons in what it means to understand someone else’s skin. (It allows for some of the best one-liners too, especially in one memorable exchange on prom night). If Tillman ties it all together a little neatly, he’s already served up a message that feels too fresh and important to dismiss — not of hate but of hope, and faith that even if sharing these stories can’t magically fix what’s broken, telling them still matters. A–