“Newlyweeds” is producer-writer-director Shaka King’s first feature, which grew from his New York University thesis project.
The marketing materials want me to believe it’s a new wave stoner film with an urban edge or a romantic comedy set among fun-loving, perpetually high, Brooklyn weed-heads. It isn’t either of those things. Humor aside, King smudges the boundaries between documentary and fiction. He delivers an intensely local, cosmopolitan and global tale of self-loathing folded inside the haze of narcotic smoke.
The urban fable begins with an unhappy Brooklyn repo man, Lyle (Amari Cheatom), and his stunning girlfriend, Nina (Trae Harris), making plans to find a new adventure in the big world.
To say that the exotic Nina can do much better than the drifting Lyle is hitting the big, shiny nail right on the bigger, shinier head. Bam, girl, please trade up!
These two are deeply, deeply in love … with weed. They plan a hallucinatory adventure with little hope of being actually realized, but that’s the consistent pattern of addiction. Lyle and Nina love to smoke, live to smoke and scheme to smoke. Their pursuit of the drug leads to the inevitable downward spiral, which is spiked with hilarious moments. King’s imaginative mind takes us to New York City’s gritty streets, circa 1970, where color-saturated heroes inhale deeply, dodge machine-gun fire and deliver Kung Fu moves that save the day.
The voracious consumption of cannabis, all beautifully shot by Daniel Patterson (“Gun Hill Road”), coupled with near flawless casting makes this a good first endeavor.
Broadening the viewers’ experience is the cleverly layered portrait of contemporary Brooklyn life, so vibrant and stocked with promise.
When cinephiles look back, they will single out the strong casting choices that introduced a new generation of African-American actors, all of whom turned in impressive performances. The work of Cheatom, whose credits include Quentin Tarrantino’s “Django Unchained,” will be accurately highlighted for his intimate portrayal of a feverishly desperate weed fiend. His character was so authentically flawed that I cared nothing for this character’s success or failure. It was just like in real life, when you witness a soul who consistently creates his own chaos.
Colman Domingo, who plays Nina’s hip boss, Chico, makes me tremble. He embodies the crux of evil, the charming enabler who pours fuel onto the smoldering embers and gleefully watches, just like an insane, fiddle-playing Roman emperor, as dreams burn to the ground. The Tony Award-, Drama Desk Award- and Drama League Award-nominated actor (who can currently be seen in Lee Daniels’ “The Butler”) knows how to make a small role so much larger.
The key to buying “Newlyweeds” is caring about the free-spirited Nina, and performance artist Trae channels love and compassion. She invents and astonishes, which helps move the story into a realm where fragments of compassion exist.
It’s a love story that focuses on the lack of self-love. It’s a stoner movie about the ugly side of being shackled by a substance. It’s a tragic comedy in which the absurdity of the stoners’ bad choices will find your funny bone. You will laugh and shake your head in mock disgust, because addicts are truly funny until they aren’t anymore.
In truth, King’s film has more in common with the classic “A Panic in Needle Park,” starring a then unknown Al Pacino: It’s just as messy, audacious and impressive.