Although Liberty Kid is billed as being about life in New York in the aftermath of the 9-11 terrorist attacks, really 9-11 is just part of the backdrop that doesn’t have all that much to do with the rest of the movie, or so it seems to me. Yes, it leads to the main characters losing their jobs (they work concessions at the Statue of Liberty, and the Statue is closed to the public temporarily after the attacks and everyone is laid off), but how long on average do teenagers work at some minimum wage job like that—a few weeks or a few months? So it’s a stretch to say losing that job had some major impact on their future.
The film is about two New York friends, Derrick and Tico. They are contrasting types, but they aren’t simplistic types. This is one of those youth films that feels impressively real at a gut level, like Our Song and unlike Havoc, neither too upbeat nor too melodramatic.
Seeing films like this makes me a little more skeptical of the style of Gus Van Zant type films like Elephant and Paranoid Park that use “real” teens instead of professional actors. When you have a decent script and decent actors, if anything pros come across more like you’re watching real life than (often self-conscious) non-actors do.
Anyway, Tico is a bit more the irresponsible, impulsive, macho, tough guy. Not to an extreme, he doesn’t seem like all that bad a guy, but when you’re growing up poor and don’t have a lot of good role models, don’t have contacts, don’t have a quality education, don’t pick up good habits, etc., there’s really not much margin for error. You know, suburban kids can screw up and be immature and such, but they get helped out of trouble, they get second and third chances, etc. Nine times out of ten they still end up successful. But somebody like Tico will probably just be a small time hood, maybe ending up in prison for much of his life due to draconian drug laws.
Derrick is a laconic sort, who is more about getting his GED and going to college and having a decent career. He’s good-hearted, shy but sweet with girls, etc. But in spite of the fact that he’s maybe got a little more going for him, and is making more of an effort to overcome his environment, the deck is stacked against him too, and as issues pile up, the likelihood of his escaping into a better life fades.
Derrick is a single father, raising toddler twins with no mother in the picture. He really can’t manage it financially, so he and the kids are living at home with his mother. He’s reasonably responsible and loving toward his kids, but he seems to approach it all with a kind of tight-lipped resignation.
When he gets involved in some low level drug dealing with Tico, and then a ludicrous insurance fraud scheme, it’s again with that kind of grim “lesser of the evils” attitude that if he doesn’t get money one way or another there’s even less chance he’ll ever be able to pursue his dreams.
Then a fast talking, exploitative Army recruiter gets a hold of him, and convinces him that his next “lesser of the evils” choices should be a stint in the military.
We flash forward to after he has returned, and of course none of what he was promised—that he’ll learn useful skills, get a free college education, etc.—has come to pass. Instead he’s clearly been emotionally damaged by the military experience. We don’t find out specifically what happened to him, because he can’t bring himself to open up about it, even with Tico. He’s in a deeper shell than ever emotionally, and reduced to sleeping in his car.
There are warm moments of friendship and flirting and such in the film, but primarily it’s a study of people being dealt hands that are nearly impossible to win with however you play them. By the end, Derrick is reduced to imploring the twins to work hard in school and do anything and everything they have to in order to realize their dreams and have a decent life. In his early to mid-20s or whatever he is at this point, he’s already largely given up on himself and switched his focus to saving lives that maybe aren’t yet lost.
I wasn’t entranced by Liberty Kid certainly, but it’s intelligent enough and realistic enough that it drew me in to where I’d rank it around the middle or a little above of the movies I’ve written about so far.