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The Inkwell Reviews

THE INKWELL, the second film directed by 21-year-old wunderkind Matty Rich (STRAIGHT OUT OF BROOKLYN), emerges as an African-American take on the rebellious teen movies of the 1950s, with a TEA AND SYMPATHY spin. Despite an accomplished ensemble cast, THE INKWELL is ideologically confused and surprisingly feeble. The film is set during the 1970s in Oak Bluffs, known as "The Inkwell," an African-American beach enclave within Martha's Vineyard. Teenaged Drew Tate (Larenz Tate) is suspected by his working-class parents, Kenny and Brenda (Joe Morton and Suzzanne Douglas), of having attempted to burn their house down. Kenny, a militant ex-Black Panther, is afraid that his son isn't "manly" enough and worries about Drew's imaginary relationship with an ever-present doll, Iago, who serves as a surrogate confidant. Hoping a change of scenery will help him mend his ways, they take him to visit his wealthy, conservative Aunt Frances and Uncle Spencer (Vanessa Bell-Calloway and Glynn Turman) in Oak Bluffs. Shy, awkward Drew is befriended by his cousin, Junior Phillips (Duane Martin), and his friends, Moe (Perry Moore) and Darryl (Markus Redmond), whose sole concern seems to be finding, and hopefully seducing, girls. At an island disco, Drew becomes infatuated with Lauren (Jada Pinkett), a pretty, self-centered young woman from an affluent family. Lauren is already involved with Harold Lee (Morris Chestnut), a local masseur and the philandering husband of Heather (Adrienne-Joi Johnson), who is friendly with Drew. Political friction between Kenny and Spencer is channeled into a hard-fought tennis match; Kenny emerges the victor, but Brenda is upset that her husband refuses to defer to their host. Meanwhile, she takes Drew to an Afrocentric woman psychiatrist (Phyllis Yvonne Stickney), to whom Drew confesses that the apparent arson was only an experiment with rocket fuel gone awry. Drew pursues Lauren, who opens up and reveals a sympathetic side, but Drew's romantic visions are shattered when he catches her in bed with Harold. Simultaneously, Heather realizes that her marriage is over; when both rejected parties meet and attempt to console each other on the moonlit beach, Drew ends up losing his virginity. Brenda turns to her mother, Evelyn (Mary Alice), for advice and manages to patch up her marriage. Kenny is overjoyed by his son's sexual conquest, while Junior's envious disbelief suggests that his worldliness has been a pose. THE INKWELL fared poorly with critics and at the box office; its rocky reception was presaged by a well-publicized clash between director Rich and the original writer, novelist Trey Ellis, who had based the screenplay on his own experiences as a middle-class teenager and objected to Rich's decision to inject elements of intra-racial class conflict into the story line (Rich grew up in the Red Hook projects in Brooklyn). Ellis, who reportedly also wanted to direct the film, had his name removed from the credits, billing himself as Tom Ricostranza--supposedly a name with scatological connotations in Italian. Television writer Paris Qualles was brought in to rewrite the screenplay to Rich's specifications; the result, not surprisingly, is a narrative and thematic jumble in which Ellis's story, a kind of updated SUMMER OF '42, is obscured by the director's vigorously expressed but somewhat confused sense of politics and history. The production design by Lester Cohen is cluttered with inflatable furniture, beaded curtains, velvet paintings, and other pop-art icons of the 70s, and the kitsch tends to overwhelm the characters. Too often the film stops for comic set-pieces like the tennis game, and, in an attempt to heighten the funny business, relief characters are tricked up in psychedelic early Jackson 5 drag, complete with afros that cover foreheads, temples, and ears like mushroom-cloud bathing caps. The actors acquit themselves nobly against stereotype, particularly the charismatic Tate. (Nudity, sexual situations, substance abuse, profanity.)