No stars. No budget. No hype. Yet Amongst Friends puts the overstuffed pretenders of summer to shame. Rob Weiss, 26, makes a sensational debut as writer and director. The film, a seismic blast of action, humor and emotion, didn’t win any awards at the Sundance Film Festival in January. Neither did Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs the year before — this shows you how judges feel about ballsy films. Weiss’s “fuck it” attitude with the press caused some to dismiss Amongst Friends, about suburban rich kids turned hoods, as GoodFellas Lite. Ignore the sniping. Weiss, from Long Island, N.Y., is writing with pitch-perfect eloquence about the mean streets he knows and directing with the manic zest of a man possessed. What Amongst Friends lacks in polish it makes up for in passion.
The film begins in darkness. We hear a male voice, speed-talking in Long Islandese: “When I was 12, I screwed this 20-year-old. I forget her name. She told me it was great, but it was too short. She was right. It didn’t last. But nothin’ ever does, at least not long enough to make any sense of it.”
The words launch the journey to self-awareness at the heart of the film, underscored by the use of the great Mick Jones song “Innocent Child.” The speaker is Andy, played by Steve Parlavecchio, who will guide us from the early ’80s to the present as he and his pals Trevor (Patrick McGaw) and Billy (Joseph Lindsey) move from hustling baseball cards in a schoolyard to working for crime bosses. Weiss and cinematographer Michael Bonvillain vividly evoke the privilege of the Five Towns, where, Andy says, judges, gangsters, rabbis and dentists live side by side and “16-year-old Jewish kids think and act like they’re Flavor Flav.” Andy, Trevor and Billy join the minority that doesn’t go to college. Bored with the “spoiled pussy” lives of their white-collar parents, they respect the crude power of Andy’s bookie grandfather and his card-playing cronies.
Weiss seizes a great subject — suburban kids who choose street crime as an exciting and lucrative alternative to yuppie greed. The trouble starts when Trevor fills in for Andy on a drug drop and gets busted. When Trevor returns after two years in prison, Billy has become a wise guy while Andy is barely getting by as a gofer. Andy is openly contrite about Trevor’s taking the rap. But Billy shows no remorse; besides, he’s trying to move in on Laura (the lovely Mira Sorvino), the girl Trevor left behind.
The three reunite in a diner where Trevor and a new pal he calls Friend (Brett Lambson) have stopped before heading to California on their Harleys. The sexist, racist humor masks deeper tensions. Billy calls Andy on using the word dis. “Everybody wants to be a nigger until they are one, huh?” he says, calling Andy a “walkin’ fuckin’ identity crisis.” Andy retaliates when Billy brags about the girls he’s been getting: “Who’d you fuck that didn’t cost you three grand and drinks?” Trevor knows they are dodging the real issue: their guilt. “That’s history,” he says, ending the discussion.
But it’s not ended. Andy wants to cut Trevor in on a drug deal he’s cooked up with two overweight dealers, Vic and Eddie, hilariously played by Frank Medrano and Louis Lombardi. Trevor resists at first, pointing to Friend as a guy who’s happy without money: “His main goal in life is to shit and sleep indoors.” But seeing Laura again tempts Trevor. Andy is right; she’s “high maintenance.” To get the money for the drug deal, Andy and Trevor rob a club owned by gangster Jack Trattner (scene stealer David Stepkin). Weiss brings unnerving tension to the heist, but when Trattner finds out, he forces the boys to work as his henchmen for restitution. That’s when a jealous Billy sets up Trevor in a scheme that will shatter the lives of the three friends for keeps.
The cast of newcomers is remarkable. Lindsey lets us see Billy irrevocably unmoor himself from morality. McGaw, in a sexy, star-making performance, shows Trevor’s sensitivity and wit. But it’s Parlavecchio who cuts deepest. Andy finally stops long enough to make sense of his life. He thinks back to the time he and Trevor and Billy were kids tossing a ball in the schoolyard. It’s the same home-movie sequence that opened the film, only this time we see the boys noticing the camera, looking into it as if for an answer. It’s a haunting scene, suggesting how self-awareness usually arrives too late for most of us. For all the vibrant entertainment, Amongst Friends is a film about taking stock. And it’s a powerhouse.