Hippo Manchester
September 29, 2005

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Roll Bounce (PG-13)
by Amy Diaz

Not since Bring It On took on issues of racial inequity have social issues (in this case, the class struggle and your general coming-of-age mishmash) been as entertainingly examined as they are in the big-hearted, goofy-fun Roll Bounce.

Yes, perhaps “Le Freak” and “Hollywood Swinging” will bring us all together. Perhaps all it takes are the words “open skate” to get the whole world out on the rink — whether our dad is an out-of-work engineer forced to work as a janitor (Chi McBride) or we are a slick disco hottie named Sweetness (Wesley Jonathan).

Xavier (Bow Wow, too old now for the “Lil’”), or X as his friends call him, is the leader of his group of roller rink-addicted pack. The kids spend their South-Side-of-Chicago summer hanging out at the local rink and practicing what a more fey group of kids might call a routine but what these pseudo-street kids simply see as their god-given superiority on the roller disco floor. Despite their South Side addresses, however, and their laments that nothing good stays open in the hood, they are uncoolly distressed when the roller rink closes (one not-so-tough is even moved to tears). Now they have to go uptown to Sweetwater. Though uneasy about leaving their neighborhood, the boys grow to like their new surroundings — in part because of all the hot girls at Sweetwater and in part because of a show-off skater named Sweetness. Along with his crew, Sweetness has all the kids at Sweetwater, especially the girls, dazzled by his roller skating abilities and his supernatural suaveness. The boys are eager to show Sweetwater and his crew that they’re not the best but an initial showdown doesn’t go so well for the South Side Rollers. Ah, cue the training and preparation montage!

Meanwhile (a movie like this always needs at least two meanwhiles), X and his little sister are still adjusting to life with their widowed dad (McBride). The death of their mother leaves the kids sad, the father sort of lost and all members of the family disconnected. The gulf between X and his dad only grows when he learns that his dad has been out of work for months without ever mentioning it.

In the second meanwhile, X is also navigating a very cautious relationship with Naomi (Meagan Good). A sweet girl he used to hang around with, Naomi has blossomed into a heartbreaker who may still have the hots for X.

Roll Bounce handles all of this with a feather-light touch — though South Side/North Side rivalries move the plot along, this isn’t exactly Nickel and Dimed. Physical comedy and disco music provide a constant background to the movie with moments of not-particularly-brilliant but nonetheless funny dialog and some uniformly above average acting by the kids. Particularly good is Jurnee Smollett who plays the braces-wearing buddy of the main group of boys. She isn’t intimidated by the insults that serve as intraboy affection and is just the right mix of chum and girl.

Her performance highlights one of the best features of the movie: all the kids look and sound like kids. No 30-year-olds pretending to be young teens; no over-developed, over-sexed female companions. Watch a show like The O.C. or Laguna Beach and you forget entirely what teens actually look like. Here they have believable personalities and age-appropriate awkwardness.

Roll Bounce is not great, possibly not even all that good, but it is fun and warms your heart like mac and cheese on a fall day.