Rock Steady Row Movie Review
Written by Rachel Knightley
Released by Gunpowder & Sky
Directed by Trevor Stevens
Written by Bomani J. Story
2018, 77 minutes, Not Yet Rated
Frightfest European Premiere on 24th August 2018
Isaac Alisma as Augustus Washington III
Jordan Allen as Kappa Member
Marcus Blake as Spartacus
Nicholas Bustamante as Starving Student
Jake Collins as Leonidas
Society has collapsed. Tuition fees have skyrocketed. There’s only way to cross an American university campus without getting killed by one or other of its warring fraternities, and that’s the bicycle.
That reliable symbol of innocence and education now dominates the campus black market economy in this dystopian vision of the American education system’s future. And the university itself is deep in the conspiracy, right along with the frats. Hapless freshmen beg to buy their bicycles back from the fraternities that stole them in the first place, at three times the price. These freshmen are either lured into traps by the establishment gangs, or by the Dean himself (Larry Miller) who only orders them to fill in forms so the investigation into the thefts can remain officially “ongoing” until they graduate – and “few graduate, let alone survive”.
A confidently stylish feature debut from director Trevor Stevens, Rock Steady Row combines a student sense of humour with a mature knowledge of genre, politics and visual storytelling. Freshman Leroy (Heston Horin) is a likeable underdog whose music provides him with the magic power to fight, a power that comes up against an equally cartoonish ability of a frat leader with a penchant for murdering his victims by pencil. Andrew (Logan Huffman) is utterly credible, a leader of the pack we all recognise, whose unshakable self-confidence and bon vivre comes from being a moral vacuum and a spoilt brat. He’s brilliantly paired with Allie Marie Evans as lolly-pop-sucking sidekick Yvette. One of the best tricks up this film’s sleeve is the comedy and grace in her role of eye-candy assistant, and physical and psychological punch-bag to an egotist, then the gradual psychological evolution as events conspire to make her realise she’s worth more and that there are things she can do about it.
The unseen narrator of the opening cartoon sequence intrigues and amuses, as do the moments our attention rests on Tom McLaughlin’s white-eyed janitor. Diamond White owns her every scene as Piper, the passionate student journalist, editor, photographer and everything-else of the student journal who finds herself unexpected roommate and saviour to Leroy. These unlikely friends bring their academic and bicycle-engineering expertise together to fight for their lives and educations. There is a vigour and intensity to each of these excellently cast roles and chemistry is sustained throughout.
Articulate and arresting imagery sequences break from the naturalistic telling of the story to explore the internal life of Leroy as he watches the corrupt system that has risen out of the ashes of our society now begin to implode. These are compulsive viewing of themselves, and bring a sense of greater depth to the action – chess sets toppling, silhouettes battling colours.
But genre conventions don’t play with audience expectations quite as truly as the set-up suggests: there’s only so many times boy-says-something-witty-and-saves-girl can work as characterisation, however deliberately you try to subvert it with really strong women being tied to posts and thrown between groups of men. Okay, it’s not necessarily the job of every film to push the boundaries, particularly when nodding to genre expectations. But there was space for depth here that could have heightened the humour, suspense and, therefore, stakes.
The sad thing is, after the set-up of the initial animation and an appropriately gory first kill to establish Andrew’s favourite tactics for stealing bicycles and for murdering their owners, the story relies too heavily on reminding us how strong its initial images were. Stevens can tell a story, no doubt about that. But this quickly feels like there’s more development in terms of length than there is in terms of plot. It works well but not quite well enough to make this dystopian university comedy horror quite fill its run-time.
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