Near its end, Gully gives a glimpse of what a less maximalist, more successful version of itself would look like, but it comes too late.
Something like the crude watercourse described by its title, Gully’s very nature inheres in the transformations undergone at intersections, specifically here of post-adolescence and its proximity to self-discovery and disillusionment. Gone are the after-school specials of yore, their preference for casual banter, milquetoast teen dissent, and comfortable dynamics; they are instead replaced by appeals to realism — “telling real stories,” in other words, fusing sparse acts of transgression with an aesthetic front targeted at a specific crowd for whom induction into such a foreign world can only be lubricated with corresponding dramatic flash. It’s all in the opening voiceover — which sees Kelvin Harrison Jr.’s tight-lipped Jessie narrate, “I’m going to pray that today will be different […] Today, I’m going to pray for peace in mind” — set over images of urban sprawl shadowed by Los Angeles’ financial district; it’s the same voiceover that will later enumerate this character’s every passing thought or flashback. It’s likewise in Calvin (Jacob Latimore) leaning forward with the studied pose of one schooled in chamber theatre, enunciating “D is for damned.” It’s in the gnomic utterances issued by Mr. Christmas, an external conscience of-sorts, who’s always there to punctuate any narrative development with his ponderings. Clearly, Gully wishes for a serious audience and enough cultural currency accorded by its talented line-up and narrative fare — unflinching discussions of abuse and systemic violence, and privileged place within the cosmology of social realist cinema — to inspire widespread praise. (As of this writing, it hasn’t thus far succeeded.) Bartered off for this potential recognition, however, is any semblance of authenticity — mangled in its constant translation to pop poetry and psychological abstraction — or the idea that, someone, somewhere, on this production yearns to treat its discourses with a gravity befitting their historic import, as opposed to that of true-crime cable offerings.
Jessie, Calvin, and Nicky (Charlie Plummer) are three friends coming up in a crime-riddled L.A. neighborhood, skating and indulging in brawls to while away the time; although one immediately understands these activities as meager recourse to the everyday brutality and hardship surrounding them. Soon, these distractions prove inadequate against the quenchless flames of boredom and youthful cupidity; their in-game moves and learned instincts are brought to bear on the battleground of real life, with their primary specialties being assault and grand larceny. By this point, the embarrassing implications of such a correlation should be evident to most. Elderkin sees fit to go one step further, however, gifting us a particularly hysterical sequence in which Calvin imagines his skateboard morphing into a machine gun, blowing up a police helicopter with it — so ill-conceived in execution it has to be seen to be believed. Elsewhere, a robbery is preceded with one of the antagonists’ weapon choices represented on an inventory selection screen. While such overt bombast conceals an interesting thread about our trio’s inability to fully recognize their actions as possessive of consequence, and the opaque barrier of virtual existence that increasingly separates individual from deed, such analysis is only displayed in these throwaway inserts. Likewise, in the revelation of a character’s captivity at the hands of a pedophile, their imagined response evinces more irksome theatrics than any attempt to reckon, closely and empathetically, with what the process of cognizance and consciousness in the wake of such unthinkable trauma might look like.
The group’s violent exploits, thusly, take center stage, for the most part: between the luxurious club montages (Elderkin’s experience with music videos regrettably bubbles up here) and the myriad cruelties inflicted on bystanders, it’s tough to locate any distinct standpoint in the film’s chronicling of its young characters’ descents into complete turpitude, skipping from adulatory ogling to cautious survey as it often does. When their fated conclusion does ultimately arrive, it lands abetted by the fullest thrust of raspy sentimentality mustered up yet; which is to say, a lot. With the barest differentiation established between each of the friends, their presence quickly etherizes until we’re back on Jessie’s opening monologue. Cut loose from the influences of his friends, but also situated as the centralizing force of their company, he is offered a second chance: to shape a future in their memory, hardly free from the burdens of his past, but no longer chained to them. We’re then allowed a few final glimpses of how this might’ve functioned in a less outwardly expressive, less maximalist form; it’s just a pity these morsels couldn’t have come an hour earlier.