In Undercover Brother, director Malcolm Lee’s shrewd but affectionate appreciation of the 1970’s was played for satire. In “Roll Bounce,” he brings that same evocative skill to a coming of age story that is sweet, funny, touching, and completely genuine. Lee creates not just the era some of us remember but also the moment all of us experience — that summer when the world opens up and you begin to see all the tantalizing and terrifying possibilities. And it has a superbly selected soundtrack of 70’s gems.
It is the summer of 1978 in the south side of Chicago. Xavier (Bow Wow), known to just about everyone as “X,” loves to skate, but the local roller rink is closing down. So, X and his friends decide to venture north to the upscale Sweetwater rink in the posh neighborhood. It is overwhelming at first. X and his friends wonder if the people at Sweetwater are better than they are, especially the local skating champion, Sweetness (Wesley Jonathan), who rules the rink with a rock-star-like entourage and his own theme music. The annual skate-off is coming up, with a $500 award for first place. X and his friends decide to compete.
X does not get a lot of support from his father (the terrific Chi McBride), who is struggling to keep the family together after the loss of his wife. He does not want his children to know that he has also lost his job. But he has not really allowed himself — or X and his sister — to mourn.
For X, friends are his family, anyway. Despite the constant tossing back and forth of insults (many relating to each other’s mothers or race), his friends are his support system, including a new friend who happens to be a girl (the sweet Jurnee Smollett as Tori).
This movie manages to pack in a lot of characters and a lot of plot and still keep a gentle, easy-going and nostalgic atmosphere. There are no surprises here. X and his father will have a confrontation and learn to understand each other better (they’ll both begin to develop relationships with lovely ladies as well) and X and his friends will wonder whether they are good enough to compete with Sweetness and then decide to give it their best shot. But the characters are endearing and genuine and it all goes down as easy as Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day.”
Parents should know that this film has brief strong language, including racial epithets. Part of the culture of this community is “the dozens,” where people try to top each other with insults, mostly directed at each other’s mothers. There are also racial wisecracks, including the n-word, often relating to the characters of mixed racial backgrounds or in inter-racial relationships, but it is done with good humor and affection. Overall, a strength of the movie is its portrayal of strong and loyal characters of diverse backgrounds. There is some adult social drinking, but X’s father explains that he does not drink. There are some tense and sad moments.
Families who see this movie should talk about why X and his father had a hard time communicating and what made it possible for them to find a way to share their feelings of loss and sadness. Why was skating so important to X and his friends? Why do X and his friends insult each other so much? How do they demonstrate their loyalty and commitment?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Drumline, starring Cannon, Cooley High, Saturday Night Fever (mature material), and Breaking Away.