Boost: A Canadian youth crime story with fast cars and an achingly believable friendship

By Jim Slotek

Rating: A-minus

Sometimes, surprisingly, the years-long process of making a Canadian movie delivers something special. Boost began with the concept of Montreal car theft rings. It was written with South Asian characters who ended up being African-Canadian.

For all that, it deepened into a universally-understandable story of doomed friendship in the shadow of crime-culture. Nominated for five Canadian Screen Awards (including actor noms for its two young leads), Darren Curtis’s sharply-shot movie has tension, action, menace, betrayal, fast cars and achingly believable characters.

It also has relevant insight into the immigrant experience, compounded in Montreal if you are (a) not white and (b) not fluent in French. That the filmmaker-scriptwriter is white may be problematic for some (as good as it is, Boost was turned down by the Toronto International Film Festival), but Curtis clearly absorbed input from everyone involved. You don’t write a movie like this in a vacuum.

A-Mac (Jahmil French) and Hakeem (Nabil Rajo) both want in as car thieves. Only one is welcome

A-Mac (Jahmil French) and Hakeem (Nabil Rajo) both want in as car thieves. Only one is welcome

As the movie opens, Hakeem (Nabil Rajo) and A-Mac (Jahmil French) are being kicked out of their French-language high school class, mostly on account of A-Mac’s clumsy pick-up attempt of a female classmate and profanity-laced exchange with the teacher. It becomes clear that both are uncomfortable with French, which may be a part of their clear non-committal to school.

The blowback from their suspension affects both differently, the Canadian-born Anthony/A-Mac seems to live an unsupervised life, while Hakeem is from a fatherless Eritrean-Canadian family where a worried mom (Olunike Adeliyi) reprimands her older son with extreme prejudice.

Ironically, her biggest worry involves another side of her family. Both Hakeem and A-Mac work part-time at the car wash owned by Hakeem’s uncle Ramaz (a terrific Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, one of the stars of Showtime’s current South Chicago crime drama The Chi). On the carwash side, A-Mac and Hakeem are resented by the other employees because they’re protected by the boss (or Hakeem is, at least).

But Ram’s car wash is a front for something bigger – a car theft/chop-shop operation with a mostly-Slavic staff, with high-value vehicles targeted as they get buffed and waxed.

Both kids want in, and Hakeem has the brains to gain entry, using the computerized GPS on a Cadillac SUV to find its owner’s address. They decide to steal the car freelance to impress Ram, a risky move that actually pays off.

Except that Ram is more interested in the legacy aspect of Hakeem’s criminal education (the kid’s father was apparently a failed crime wannabe). He detests A-Mac for his obsession with white women, his failure to grasp the barriers between him and the white world, and not incidentally, for not being Eritrean.

Ironically, it’s Hakeem who ends up with a partying white girl (Juliette Gariépy) and a life-changing mistake that encompasses a joyride and a next-level descent into the dark side of his uncle’s business.

There are myriad themes touched on in Boost: the divide between Americanized Blacks and Africans, the balancing act an immigrant learns (Ram is so crocodile-smooth with the police that butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth), the lure of crime, the double-edged sword that family can represent (indeed, the movie’s denouement evokes the family values of the Corleones).

It adds up to a tense, and ultimately killer-cold Canadian crime story.

Boost. Directed by Darren Curtis. Starring Nabil Rajo, Jahmil French and Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine. Opens Friday, March 2 at Cineplex, Scotiabank.

Click here for Jim Slotek's interview with Boost's Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine.