There are purposely offensive movies, and those are probably the easiest to identify as such because of their inflammatory stances or creative choices that rightfully inspire ire from a plurality of enlightened cinephiles. However, there are some films that are inadvertently offensive, trying to be respectful and compassionate with clearly no schema for understanding how to do so. November Criminals is just such a film, but the main thing keeping the movie from being an interesting conversation piece to parse for being so problematic is that it is virtually dead on arrival.
Our protagonists are Addison (Ansel Elgort) and Phoebe (Chloë Grace Moretz), a pair of high school seniors whose classmate is killed in a shooting at the coffee shop where he worked. Because the teenager was black, the local police assume the shooting was gang motivated, even though Addison’s understanding of his friend was that he would have nothing to do with gangs. Coping with the death of his own mother in the previous year, Addison takes it upon himself to investigate his friend’s murder while Phoebe and his father (David Strathairn) question whether there actually is any more to this murder than meets the eye.
The obvious flaw in this narrative construction is that it uses a black death as a prop to primarily explore white angst. There is a lot of lip service paid to the deleterious effects of racial assumptions, but the film’s black characters aren’t afforded the dimensionality to speak for themselves or express anything beyond helpless grief or flat aggression. Addison is the only character outraged by the death enough to do anything about it, and he is driven less by the death itself than he is by unresolved feelings about a more personal tragedy. That’s a really tone deaf way to set up a plot that ends up prioritizing the death of a white character we never meet over the death of a black character we do.
But even if we take the film as a neutral exploration of teenage angst, November Criminals is almost entirely limp. Director Sacha Gervasi is clearly shooting for a Veronica Mars vibe, but his and Steven Knight’s screenplay is so entirely lacking in wit that even the naturally charismatic Elgort and Moretz cannot breathe life into it. Instead, Addison stumbles from scene to scene, less unraveling a mystery than he is coming to an overly obvious conclusion. Moretz gets to do virtually nothing but be a sounding board for her male counterpart’s musings, adding a small romantic element to the plot like an obligatory teen drama checkmark.
November Criminals is precisely the kind of movie that I wish I could recommend simply to spark conversation on how not to tackle issues of race in a film, but it is such a dull and lifeless experience that it can’t even serve that purpose. Thankfully brief and all too easily forgotten, this is a movie doomed to sit as an unfortunate footnote in its rising stars’ careers. Hell, it might not even warrant that.