Director Aimee Lagos seems to be at odds with her own film, like a well-meaning but controlling parent hell-bent on choosing a child's college, major, and fraternity for them. She unremittingly insists that 96 Minutes take the route she's attempted to clear out for it, detrimentally piling on ill-fitting themes and characters to try and shape the film into something it's not.
At the core of 96 Minutes is Dre, the film's only source of real, relatable emotion, thanks in large part to a compelling performance by Evan Ross, the deserving recipient of a Breakthrough Performance Award at last year's SXSW. Dre's struggle to hang onto the gang-related friends of his past while still pursuing the educational ambitions of his future holds enough internal and external conflict to comprise an engaging film. However, Lagos surrounds it with the uneventful stories of Carley (Brittany Snow) and Lena (Christian Serratos), two arc-less, fixed trajectories that exist to simply collide with the stories of Dre and Kevin (J. Michael Trautmann), whose own terribly unsubtle but necessary plot thread involving his own befriending of Dre's gangsta friends offers little character development or explanation beyond the old standbys of "bad parenting" and "violent video games."
Dre's own plight isn't free of clichés, but Lagos counters many of them with refreshing moments true to the character, as when Dre takes Kevin on a trip to his town's college hangout. He walks along the sidewalks, taking in the city lights and sights, knowing the opportunity for a more fulfilling life is just around the corner. It's a cheesy way to show Kevin the potential of an existence away from thugs and hatred, but it's so real to Dre's character that the moment becomes moving. Scenes like these struggle to redeem a film set on surrounding its best material with generic, bland filler.
Similarly, thematically, the film can't pull away from the grips of its insistent director. 96 Minutes, through Dre's inner battle and Kevin's predictable descent into "dangerously misguided teen" territory, finds itself asking questions about personal identity, where it comes from, and if it can ever be altered, yet somewhere along the way Lagos decided that the film's focus needed to be morality—more specifically whether or not "an eye for an eye" has a place in how we run our society. The notion is crudely mashed into the film's timeline, first in the form of a convenient college ethics debate arguing the morality of the death penalty, and then as a clumsy epilogue where one self-righteous character touts the virtues of this moral outlook over another, confusing the viewer, who's left wondering why the director couldn't let her film grow up to be what it really wanted to be.