A privileged teen ventures onto the wrong side of the tracks, and a would-be murder mystery veers into ever-more-faux dramatic territory in November Criminals, the third film by Sacha Gervasi (Anvil: The Story of Anvil, Hitchcock). The starry chemistry of leads Ansel Elgort and Chloë Grace Moretz injects a modicum of energy into the coming-of-age drama, whose elements of romance, crime and smart-kid angst never coalesce.
Beyond the movie’s missing sense of urgency, it strands David Strathairn and especially Catherine Keener on the sidelines of the narrative clutter. The feature was released to digital streaming outlets in advance of a theatrical run that’s sure to be brief.
Unfocused and unconvincing.
Elgort and Moretz portray Addison and Phoebe, students at a public high school in Washington, D.C. — a setting that’s played by Rhode Island and whose particular social resonance is hinted at but goes largely unmined. On the afternoon that they lose their virginity to each other — a practical project instigated by Phoebe, who’s eager to “get it over with” before she heads to Yale — Addison’s friend Kevin (Jared Kemp), a fellow literature geek, is shot dead at the café where he works as a barista.
Addison becomes obsessed with solving the case, especially after the police and the press seem to shrug it off as gang-related. Everyone around him, including Phoebe and their earnest principal (Terry Kinney), interprets his fixation as an expression of repressed grief over the recent death of his mother. That he conflates the two unexpected losses is clear, and his adolescent railing against the injustice of the universe rings true. But on the worldly plane, as opposed to the philosophical one, the film futilely raises the question of another injustice.
Kevin was black, and the screenplay, credited to Gervasi and Steven Knight (Locke), suggests that the self-appointed boy detective might uncover a racially based cover-up or case of systematic indifference surrounding his friend’s murder. Then the movie turns into a flat, after-school whodunit, complete with a clumsily directed visit to the dead boy’s parents (Victor Williams, Opal Alladin). Addison follows leads to a strung-out former classmate (Danny Flaherty) and a scary drug dealer (Cory Hardrict), and with each headlong plunge into danger, his mission grows more contrived.
The economic realities that underlie the story are under-explored, though Gervasi uses them for straightforward character shading. Phoebe’s single mother (Keener) is a lobbyist whose financial success is evident, if not her area of interest; it’s a thinly conceived role that even the gifted Keener can’t lend dimension. Given a bit more room as Addison’s father, Strathairn quietly conveys the widower’s grief, and his general sense of struggle and resilience. Since losing his newspaper job, he and his family have fallen from a certain level of comfort, moving out of their posh neighborhood. It’s unclear whether Addison’s use of such old-school tech as a pager and an old camcorder is a matter of cost-cutting or an affectation.
Elgort and Moretz, on the heels of high-profile turns in films that were, respectively, widely seen (Baby Driver) and never released (I Love You, Daddy), deliver the requisite self-conscious smarts and sexual curiosity. With her cool poise, Phoebe is a convincing foil for the flailing Addison. But while Elgort suggests an awkward sincerity beneath the uncharming cockiness, the film finally feels as pointless as the video diary that his sleuthing character insists on making.
Production companies: Lotus Entertainment, Black Bicycle Entertainment, Ingenious Media Services, Olfactory Productions, Pictures, Treetop Pictures, B.I.G. Inc.
Distributor: Sony/Stage 6 Films, Vertical Entertainment
Cast: Ansel Elgort, Chloë Grace Moretz, David Strathairn, Catherine Keener, Terry Kinney, Cory Hardrict, Philip Ettinger, Danny Flaherty, Victor Williams, Opal Alladin, Tessa Albertson, Adrian Mompoint, Karina Deyko, Jared Kemp, Samuel Ray Gates
Director: Sacha Gervasi
Screenwriters: Steven Knight, Sacha Gervasi
Based on the novel by: Sam Munson
Producers: Beth O’Neil, Erika Olde, Ara Keshishian, Bill Johnson, Jim Seibel, Marc Bienstock
Executive producers: Angus Sutherland, Tanja Tawadjoh, Malindi Fickle, Teri Moretz, Trevor Duke-Moretz, Jessica de Rothschild
Director of photography: Mihai Malaimare Jr.
Production designer: Curt Beech
Costume designer: Julie Weiss
Editor: Martin Pensa
Composer: David Norland
Casting directors: Douglas Aibel, Henry Russell Bergstein
Rated PG-13, 86 minutes