Movie Review: ‘November Criminals’ a Dressed-Down Spin on Brick

Movie Review: ‘November Criminals’ a Dressed-Down Spin on Brick

On the same day high school senior Addison (Baby Driver’s Ansel Elgort) makes it with longtime friend Phoebe (Chloë Grace Moretz), their African-American pal Kevin is shot and killed in what media and police call a gang-related incident. 

But Addison - an affluent white D.C.. suburbian - doesn’t buy it: his friend wasn’t involved with any gangs, and the accusation by the media smacks of racial profiling.

And while November Criminals starts out as a sensitive teen drama focusing on the relationship between Addison and Phoebe, it quickly turns into something akin to Rian Johnson’s Brick as Addison becomes obsessed with finding out what happens to his friend.

But where the stylized Brick took a film noir approach to its tale of a high-schooler (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) investigating the murder of his girlfriend, November Criminals takes a dressed-down, realistic approach to its similar premise.

That leads to some surprisingly honest scenes between the characters played by Elgort and Moretz, who discuss sex and intimacy in the kind frank manner you don’t normally see in this kind of film. Meanwhile, Addison’s obsession threatens to pull them apart, and put himself in danger.

And there are also some unusually thoughtful scenes between the kids and their parents; Phoebe’s well-meaning but emotionally distant mother is played by Catherine Keener, and Addison’s father, who is still, with his son, coming to grips with the recent loss of his wife, is played by David Strathairn. 

Keener and (especially) Strathairn both lend the film some real credibility with more well-rounded characterizations of parents than the usual teen flick; even the bullish principal, played by Terry Kinney, feels multidimensional. 

But where the film succeeds with characters and their relationships, it falters with the murder mystery angel that Brick milked so good. Addison’s descent into the inner-city D.C. underworld, represented by his old friend Noel (Danny Flaherty) and a drug dealer named D Cash (Cory Hardrict), doesn’t feel nearly as authentic as the suburban drama that preceded it. 

Nor does it provide many surprises along the way, leading to a predictable conclusion that feels much too pat. Still, the character drama works well enough to make November Criminals an easy (if light) recommend. 

Based on the novel by Sam Munson, November Criminals was directed by Sacha Gervasi (Hitchcock) from a script by Gervasi and Steven Knight (Locke), and shot in the spring of 2015. 

You would expect a movie with rising stars like Elgort and Moretz to receive some hype, but 2.5 years later it has been quietly released to Amazon streaming services with little fanfare before a limited US theatrical release in December.

That’s a real shame: this is low-key but affecting drama with two of the most engaging performances that Elgort and Moretz have given, and a far more genuine portrait of high school life and love than the kind of movies they typically appear in.

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