Hurricane Streets comes on like a tough cookie but ends up just plain stale. First-time writer/director Morgan J. Freeman (no relation to actor Morgan Freeman) plies the kind of beat-up trash-can naturalism that went out with Sal Mineo films like Dino. Set in New York's Lower East Side, Freeman's picture of latter-day Dead End Kids has a doominess that can pass for integrity and a hero so opaque that audiences can read anything into him -- which is presumably why it won the audience award (among others) at Sundance last year. Brendan Sexton III plays Marcus, who lives with his bar-owner grandma and leads a multiracial gang devoted to shoplifting CDs and running shoes, then selling them on the street to schoolchildren. The story picks him up at a hopeful moment: He expects to get an air ticket to New Mexico from his uncle. But his life swiftly careens from trauma to catastrophe. Marcus finds out the awful truth behind his father's death and his mother's long-term incarceration. He falls in love with a fresh, pretty 14-year-old (Isidra Vega), only to have her abusive father (Shawn Elliott) toss him into the East River. And a volatile buddy (David Roland Frank) threatens to rip the gang apart. Unlike Marcus, he wants to graduate from impulse crimes to felonies -- car theft and home invasion.
If it were possible to climb inside Marcus' brain, we might be able to experience this downward spiral as a horrifying vertigo or even a black-comic spree. Too bad Sexton's all-purpose brood and slouch lock us out. In general, Freeman practices an indie version of the Hollywood moral shuffle: We're asked to identify with Marcus because of what he won't do, not what he does. Freeman makes Marcus more cautious and clean-living than his friends, and gives him asthma to suggest emotional vulnerability; the romance is pretty much just puppy love. There's something vaporous about this anti-hero, and about the entire movie, too. Sure, it's full of '90s references to, say, Hootie & the Blowfish. But the buddies' clubhouse, the grandma's cozy bar, the sage advice of a guitar-strummin' ramblin' guy named Mack (L.M. Kit Carson) -- all these bits, settings, and sideshows play like hand-me-downs from hard-teen tales of the past. This film is a fun-house-mirror version of a classic juvenile-delinquent saga -- except it isn't any fun. Freeman even turns "Stayin' Alive," the paean to working-class energy from Saturday Night Fever, into an anti-anthem of despair. "Stayin' Alive"? A more apt title for Hurricane Streets might be Better Off Dead.