Hats off to Bow Wow. While his brief filmography has not yet yielded a major blockbuster, or an enduring film, he at least chooses movies that have heart.
“Like Mike,” “Johnson’s Family Vacation,” and now “Roll Bounce” all point to an artist who is very keen on taking roles aimed at a young, innocent audience, even though his newly tattooed biceps and increased gangsta sway, seem to be aimed at somebody else.
What’s more, Bow Wow has chosen an acting philosophy not seen by many rappers – that is, he chooses to act instead of playing various versions of his music persona. As Xavier in “Roll,” Bow Wow is a sensitive young boy living in some undetermined year in the 1970s.
He and his crew of friends, including Junior (Brandon Jackson), Naps (Rick Gonzalez) Mixed Mike (Khleo Thomas), are the roller-skating champs at their local Chicago rink. With patented routines and smooth moves, they dominate the floor with a benign hand – that is until the rink closes down and forces them to cross town to the upscale Sweetwater rink, where they must face a rival skating crew led by Sweetness (Jonathan Wesley) – the afroed, demi-god who glides around flanked by a bevy of groupies and his yes-men dipped in gold-lame tracksuits.
Clearly, somebody’s going to get “served” here but it’s just a matter of when as X’s ragtag crew works double-time to strip Sweetness of his title. And when the action is aimed on this bloodless and family friendly battle, “Roll Bounce” is a giddy treat that serves the dual purpose of Generation-X nostalgia (complete with a banging soundtrack, featuring Earth, Wind and Fire, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and more) as well as curious peek back at a time before Ipods and instant messaging for kids who don’t know life without them.
On paper, “Roll Bounce” seems like an instant teen classic, along the lines of “House Party,” but too many thematic missteps have its wheels spinning in the wrong direction. In an attempt to add some dramatic heft to all the fuzzy memories, we’re given a subplot that involves Xavier’s difficulty in dealing with his mother’s recent death and inability to understand his father (Chi McBride).
For the most part, this is handled well by all involved, including Bow Wow, who negotiates the confusion of hormones, new-found rage and overwhelming sorrow with skill. Likewise, McBride makes an unlikely, but effective, carrot, which dangles in front of the neighborhood’s single female population. Most hungry is Vivian (Kellita Smith), the new woman on the block. It seems, in the ’70s, men needed neither a six-pack nor a baby-seal smooth chest to bring in the ladies.
Speaking of ladies, Meagan Good and Jurnee Smollet get smaller roles as love interests and friends to Xavier’s crew. Smollet gets more screen time as Tori, Xavier’s new neighbor who becomes one of the boys in their trek to dominance at Sweetwater. Sadly, Good’s role is tied to the film’s weaker dramatic subplot, leaving her role vague and unfulfilling. As Naomi, Good is a former brace-face turned shy beauty who still has a thing for Xavier. What’s not clear is why Xavier isn’t tripping over his skates to date her. He’s clearly interested but, due to some undefined motive, he’s reluctant to make a move. I supposed the death of his mother could be inhibiting him, but it’s never clearly stated, and “Roll Bounce” isn’t a movie that should deal in unresolved issues.
It should, as it mostly does, slide, dip and jump to its own giddy, underdog-does-good rhythm while doling out messages for the pre-teen crowd.