This week in movies: ‘The Hate U Give’ and ‘Bad Times at the El Royale’

A character-driven study of racism and police brutality, and a love letter to film noir.

Amandla Stenberg and Lamar Johnson in The Hate U Give. Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox. 

Erika Doss

Amandla Stenberg and Lamar Johnson in The Hate U Give. Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox. 

Maddy Folstein

“The Hate U Give”

Based on a young adult novel by Angie Thomas, “The Hate U Give” features a main character who leads two lives. Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) lives with her family in a predominantly black neighborhood. During the week, she — “Starr version two,” as she calls herself — goes to a private school with mostly wealthy, white students. 

This code switching underscores the entire film. After witnessing a police officer shoot her childhood best friend, Khalil, Starr is pushed to the forefront of a growing resistance. But she keeps this conflict from her friends and boyfriend at school. 

“The Hate U Give” opens with a much-younger-Starr’s parents giving her what she describes as “the talk” — their guide to surviving an interaction if pulled over by a police officer. Her uncle Carlos (played by Common) is a police officer who tries to explain the pressure his colleagues are under, while her father (Russell Hornsby) teaches his children the Black Panther Party’s Ten-Point Program. 

Grounded by excellent performances, the movie tackles a lot. Stenberg elevates Starr’s interiority. As Starr’s perents, Russell Hornsby and Regina Hall bring vital emotional depth to the heavy topics their family must grapple with. In the time that he spends on screen, Algee Smith brings charm and earnestness to Khalil — his loss is felt even more deeply because of it. 

The plot ties up neatly and swiftly; harmony is seemingly restored in Starr’s life, neighborhood and family by the end of the film. But other moments get swept away. Starr’s boyfriend, Chris (K.J. Apa), pulls an “I don’t see color” speech on her, for example. While the script gives her room to fight back, the plot has to keep pushing forward.

Even so, it’s joyful and empowering to watch Starr find her voice by the end — and for the film to do the same through her perspective. 

Grade: B+

“Bad Times at the El Royale”

“Bad Times at the El Royale” takes place on a dark and stormy night.

It’s a love letter to noir, after all.

In the late 1960s, seven strangers enter the El Royale hotel; (very) few leave the next morning unscathed. There are gunshots, two-way mirrors and stacks of money hidden under the floorboards. 

Director and screenwriter Drew Goddard constructs a clever world inside the El Royale. The hotel lies directly on the California-Nevada borderline; the rooms on the California side cost more per night. 

At first, the characters seem less thought-out. They all have shady motives for being at the hotel — a priest named Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges) doesn’t give a convincingly pious performance and a traveling salesman with a wavering Southern drawl (Jon Hamm) quickly tears apart his room, finding wires hidden everywhere. The hippie-esque Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson) signs her name as “fuck you” in the hotel ledger. 

“Bad Times at the El Royale” paces itself at a breakneck speed, with jump-scares that are almost too startling. The soundtrack is worth noting, too. Cynthia Erivo plays a struggling singer. Her voice, along with period-appropriate songs sometimes played from the lobby jukebox, punctuate the action and soar above it. 

We periodically learn snippets of the characters’ backstories, introduced by old cinema-style intertitles. When we drift away from the El Royale, the film’s thrilling pace drags. Goddard constructs the characters’ backstories by borrowing heavily from vaguely historical references — the Vietnam War, the music industry, cults. 

These allusions build a lush world around the El Royale, but it’s never quite enough to transcend the eeriness of the film’s setting. 

In this noir, the red neon lights of the hotel’s blinking signs and the twinkling lobby chandeliers will always be more interesting than the characters they illuminate.

Grade: B