Even those inured to the most pedestrian of urban-masculine blues must be viewing the discovery of art in that formula a hopeless expectation, especially as most entries continue to fall into one of two dubious categories: medium-budget rapper vehicles and independent paeans to street life inspired by glaring misinterpretations of the “write what you know” adage. Falling Awake is a notably lame example of the latter, casting a collection of illustrious no-names—most embody, by requirement, some typish conglomerate of city-youth characteristics such as “the talkative, hyperactive lanky one” or “the hulky, silent, secretly sensitive one”—in a fatuous gangland epic of multicultural tensions between blacks and Puerto Ricans. The protagonist, Jay (Andrew Cisneros), displays the obligatory potential for maturity (he’s a modestly successful Manhattan busker with an acoustic guitar), and throughout the course of the film connects with the girl (Jenna Dewan) who just might help him escape the concrete jungle of the inner city in spite of parents that continually confront him with a laughable lack of understanding (the father, played by TV regular Nestor Serrano, is a surly stew of inappropriate Spanglish and electric bill-related grievances).
That the film hardly bothers to exfoliate the long-dead stratum of the youth-gang drama genre would be, in most other similar movies, a trivial irritation, and the finishing detail on an experience easily forgotten; writer-director Agustin, however, insidiously tempts us to offer Falling Awake closer observation than he can reward with a number of subtle, if ultimately poorly-executed, flourishes. Jay’s brother Eddie (Nicholas Gonzalez) has returned from Iraq with acute PTSD, but rather than boldly personifying the raw deal offered to poor young adults in mismanaged wars he becomes an insultingly shell-shocked lost cause; the film sacrifices his future for the protagonist’s redemption without remorse. And while Jay himself is a clever mix of interracial influences (he’s of Hispanic descent but appears inexplicably Greek, and has a soft spot for Asians due to his love of martial arts), he never once rises to the noble task of communal peacemaker aside from a vaguely disapproving scowl directed at occasional acts of discrimination; he’s instead content to haunt perilous African-American neighborhoods with frustrating, nearly taunting, passivity. If only the tepidly intriguing first act foreshadowed some trenchant climax. As it is, our interest dissolves with the introduction of the insipid plot device: a pair of stolen designer sneakers that every ethnicity in town yearns to slip their toes into. After the 30-minute mark, Falling Awake is more of a digitally prettified endurance test than a film.