There’s a certain kind of music-video director who will seize on the prospect of doing a movie as an opportunity to make a splash. It’s not hard to see why. In-demand video directors work with the hottest talent in the business, and their videos tend to be celebrated as four-minute bursts of genius. “Gully” is the first dramatic feature directed by Nabil Elderkin, the Australian-American director — usually credited simply as “Nabil” — who has made videos for Kanye West, Dua Lipa, Kendrick Lamar, Bruno Mars, Nicki Minaj, Frank Ocean, the Black Eyed Peas, John Legend, Diddy, Shrillex, and Antony and the Johnsons. You can glimpse his talent in “Gully” — not because it’s a film of showoff imagery (it’s actually got a rather unvarnished low-budget aesthetic), but because the movie looks, for a while, like it’s trying to be “Boyz n the Hood” meets “A Clockwork Orange,” and you get curious to follow that down.
The movie is set in South Central L.A. and features a trio of very good young actors. Kelvin Harrison Jr., the star of “Waves,” is Jesse, a kid so troubled he literally doesn’t speak (though he talks to us on the soundtrack), and when you see the relationship he has with his white stepfather, played by John Corbett in a creepy beard, you understand the silence. Charlie Plummer, from “Lean on Pete” and “All the Money in the World,” is Nicky, whose violent, abusive past has shaped his tendency to lash out; his mother, who works in a strip club and is played with magnetic anger by Amber Heard, seems nearly as much of an overgrown adolescent as he is. And Jacob Latimore is Calvin, a brilliant but nihilistic kid who’s also a loose cannon on medication for an unspecified condition (though he sounds bipolar). He dreams of the planet Venus, because life on earth is too much for him. When his skateboard gets run over by a car and busted in half, he explodes and falls apart at the same time.
The three, who grew up together, drift around — from a DVD store they trash for no good reason to the home of a wealthy couple they terrorize, from a couple of drug dealers they beat up with an ultraviolent gusto right out of their favorite video games to a nightclub where they party with two young women from out of town. None of the encounters comes to much, and that’s kind of the point. The drift is life; they’re leading a go-nowhere existence.
A movie, however, needs to go somewhere, and “Gully” basically doesn’t. The reason I cite the splash-making qualities of music-video directors is that while Nabil doesn’t overdose on visual trickery, there’s an underlying pretension to “Gully.” He stages certain scenes in a way that’s quietly compelling, especially when he digresses over to the character of Greg (Jonathan Majors), a former gang member who just finished serving a prison sentence for nearly bashing someone to death. Prison seems to have quelled his demons, and Jonathan Majors, who was one of the title veterans in Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods,” is an extraordinary actor who suggests a depth of pain — and an embrace of the daily pleasure of life — just beneath his rather philosophical grimace. He exudes the element of mystery the rest of the film doesn’t.
The trouble with “Gully” is that instead of exploring its three main characters, the film subsumes them into Nabil Elderkin’s overly benumbed “vision.” A movie about oppressed and impoverished lives has the right to be tragic, but psychologically “Gully” is static — no one in it grows or evolves. It’s a movie that presents growing up in the hood as a booby trap of fate, but the film doesn’t earn its doomsaying. Terrence Howard, in a winter coat and wool hat, is on hand as a homeless man who’s a kind of schizophrenic Greek-chorus soothsayer with a shopping cart, preaching a garbled wisdom no one pays any attention to. He’s the emblem of a movie that rarely figures out a way for experience to unlock hopelessness.