Julius Onah’s debut feature film, The Girl is in Trouble, marches down a familiar path, but clearly moves to its own energetic beat. The protagonist, August (Columbus Short), sells the film early on as a tale of chance and fate, but it is also about the choices people make. Choices that have ramifications one cannot easily ignore.
Avoiding their problems is something that both August, a failed DJ, and Signe (Alicja Bachleda), a woman with a mysterious past, have in common. Brought together by a mixture of chance and desperation one fateful night, August quickly realizes that their late night encounter comes with some dangerous strings attached. Unbeknownst to him, Signe is in possession of footage which documents a wealthy business man’s son, Nicholas (Jesse Spencer), killing Jesus (Kareem Savinon), a low rent drug dealer who is an acquaintance of August.
Hoping to make some quick money, as well as give the callous trust fund brat his comeuppance in the process, Signe enlists August’s help for a blackmail scheme. Still bitter that Nicolas cost him a Lower East Side bartending gig, the initially reluctant August agrees to be the intimidating middle man for the seemingly simple “money for footage” transaction. Unfortunately for the pair, their plans begin to spiral out of control when Angel (Wilmer Valderrama), the volatile brother of the deceased drug dealer, shows up determined to find his missing sibling.
Bringing a solid level of suspense to the film, Onah shows much promise as a director. He manages to take a rather conventional premise and transform it into a surprisingly engaging thriller. Whether incorporating freeze frames, playing with non-linear storytelling, or subtly paying homage to filmmakers like Spike Lee, Onah’s creativity pours off the screen.
The overall confidence that Onah displays through the film’s stylistic traits seems to rub off on his actors as well. Short and Bachleda display solid chemistry portraying the emotionally damaged pair who, due to circumstances, have no other choice but to learn to trust each other. It should also be noted that Valderrama is exceptionally good conveying the quiet rage boiling inside of Angel. However, the real revelation of the piece is Spencer, who manages to bring a surprising amount of layers to his spoiled rich kid character.
The Girl is in Trouble may not offer too many revelations from a narrative standpoint, but the performances and strong direction by Onah allow the film to rise above its conventional trappings. One does not need to rely on chance to give The Girl is in Trouble a shot, it is entertaining enough to earn our attention on its own.
Thursday, February 11, 5:00 PM, Carlton Cinema
Tickets can be purchased at the Toronto Black Film Festival website.