This powerful and moving debut from writer and director Boaz Yakin may have a 12-year-old protagonist, but you won’t mistake it for Disney. Fresh, played with riveting intensity by Sean Nelson, runs heroin and crack after school, then goes home to the Brooklyn, N.Y., projects where he lives with his Aunt Frances (Cheryl Freeman) and 11 cousins. His junkie sister, Nichole (N’Bushe Wright), has moved in with her abusive boyfriend. Fresh has been warned against seeing his homeless dad, Sam (Samuel L. Jackson), but when he sneaks off to join Sam for a game of speed chess, he picks up a few moves Dad never intended.
The great cinematographer Adam Holender (Midnight Cowboy) brings a vivid authenticity to Fresh’s environment. To get himself and his sister out, Fresh turns two rival drug bosses, Esteban (Giancarlo Esposito) and Corky (Ron Brice), against each other in a blood bath that brings down villains like pawns. The acting by Esposito and Jackson is exceptional, but it is on the remarkable face of Nelson that Yakin shows what gets lost when a child beats criminals at their own game.