Gully, the gritty debut feature from Austalian music video director Nabil Elderkin, would have been considered a groundbreaking arthouse film in the early 2000s. Its story of troubled, violent South L.A. teens coming-of-age in the midst of hopelessness is one that has been told to death, often with little actual insight into the factors that cause such desolation. Despite a tremendous cast from top to bottom, this film is no different from the others, except that it feels woefully outdated.
Ironically, Gully has been sitting on the shelf for a couple of years, first debuting at Tribeca in 2019 and generating little buzz despite the wealth of talent at Elderkin’s disposal. Supposedly set in a dystopian Los Angeles, although it looks more like an attempt to recreate Boyz n The Hood, the film centers on a trio of teens whose lives have been marred by familial violence, abuse, and poverty. Calvin (Jacob Latimore) is brilliant, philosophical, but also apparently schizophrenic or suffering from some other mental instability. His mother (Robin Givens) is lost with what to do with him, unable to even get him to take his medication. The silent Jesse (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) suffers from flashbacks of past trauma, while living with his “father” (John Corbett) whose abuses steer towards the grotesque. Nicky (Charlie Plummer) is the resident white trash of the neighborhood. He takes backlash from the residents for knocking up a black girl, and talks shit to his too-young mother (a wildly miscast Amber Heard) who has her own demons to deal with.
The trio run in a wolfpack of sorts. All very childlike in their own ways, they get off on violent GTA-style video games, which they then act out in brutal episodes of crime and chaos. As the police helicopters hover over the city like oppressive rulers, Calvin imagines gunning one down from the skies like a character in his favorite console games. While stomping out a couple of randoms just to jack their ride, they see themselves racking up high scores and upgrading their equipment. These scenes have all of the stylistic energy we expect from music video directors who transition to features. Once again, this would have meant something years ago but fails to stand out as anything unique today. When terrible acts of cruelty aren’t being committed, the film goes stagnant bordering on dull.
Screenwriter Marcus J. Guillory isn’t being subtle here with his analysis of what drives these characters; the problem is they don’t feel very real, either. Not very much in Gully does, despite Elderkin wanting us to see how very important and serious his movie is. It comes across as more of a joke than a worthwhile drama, with all of the swooning orchestral music to mark “key” moments. Cue in Terence Howard as the colorfully-named Mr. Christmas, a hobo who carts around the city dropping poetry and proverb like he’s the embodiment of every awful role Howard has ever taken. When Elderkin does stumble on something honest, like the plight of recently-released ex-con Greg (played by the great Jonathan Majors) as he tries to go straight, it isn’t given nearly enough time to make much impact. He sort of drifts in and out of the story without adding a lot, making you wish the focus could have been on him rather than the cardboard nihilists we get as protagonists. In Greg, we see how the weight of one’s past can burden the present, making the fight to better oneself more of a challenge, but also more worthwhile. For Black men this is especially true. Paying the debt for one’s sins is almost never satisfied.
The word “gully” used to get tossed around in hip-hop circles a lot. It means “from the gutter”, and rappers would use it to describe how gangsta they were. Of course, most of them were straight bullshit on any of that. Try as it might, Gully‘s attempts at a raw, unflinching look at growing up in the mean L.A. streets also feels like a front.
Gully opens in theaters on June 4th, followed by DVD on June 8th.