Troop 491: The Adventures of the Muddy Lions" is something of a miracle. It pulls off one of the most difficult film gestures there is: It's a capital-M message movie that actually works. The central character is a teenage boy named Tristan who's learning to deal with life in the projects in Richmond's Church Hill. His mother enrolls him in the Boy Scouts to try to keep him off the streets. But when he witnesses a killing — and the shooter insists that he stay silent — Tristan has some potentially life-altering decisions to make. As the movie synopsis puts it: "Will he follow the code of the streets or the code of the Scouts?"
Tristan, played by newcomer Kimani Coleman, is affecting and realistic. The situation in which he finds himself is credible and sadly familiar, and while the climax and conclusion may not be true-to-life, they're still pretty satisfying. The movie has a look and feel comparable to most Hollywood films; it's an engrossing, engaging film experience. It's also nice, for once, to see aerial, skyline shots of contemporary Richmond, rather than straining to recognize the city through the lens of the latest Revolutionary- or Civil War-era period piece.
But what makes "Troop 491" a can't-miss film for Richmonders isn't the aerial shots, but those at street level. Local director and writer Praheme (born Patrick Ricks) shooting mostly in Church Hill, skillfully combines the coming-of-age story, the 'hood murder film, and, perhaps most improbably, the giddy, middle-school romp — all the while taking his viewers deep into the culturally rich but economically unstable world of the neighborhood.
He introduces viewers to the particular issues of that world, but never sacrifices the humanity of these Church Hill residents. These characters aren't props, simply in place to make a point. They're vivid, flawed human beings. Tristan really just seems like any other kid who might live anywhere, tasked with balancing trying to be cool with doing the right thing. It's just that in other neighborhoods, in other parts of the city, the stakes aren't quite so high for the choices — large and small — that he must make.
The film, which has something of a documentary feel, exposes the audience to a daily reality very different than that of middle-class Richmonders. For anyone interested in examining the city the way it's experienced by many adolescents in high-poverty neighborhoods, watching "Troop 491" is a good start.
But the film isn't solely for those who might find the setting unfamiliar. Troop 491 seems to offer its message to two separate sets of viewers: Those who live outside Church Hill and those who live there. Among other things, the film explores the question of snitching in more-violent neighborhoods. Viewers who know what it's like to live in Tristan's world can have their experiences validated on the big screen and consider ways of coping.
At the same time, the film puts its finger on a critical question for all Richmonders: how the community as a whole — inside and outside our densest pockets of poverty — can provide the support and practical wisdom teenagers need to survive the serious and all-too-real perils of adolescence in this city.
One clear takeaway is the value of providing youth an environment in which they have not only contact with trusted adults imparting solid values, but also a chance to develop strong, trusting relationships with peers who are also trying to do the right thing. Tristan's story begins taking a turn for the better when he finds the wherewithal to share his dilemma with his Boy Scout comrades.
That message aligns well with community efforts underway to support middle-schoolers, both in and out of school. Key proposals coming out of the Maggie L. Walker Initiative for Expanding Opportunity and Fighting Poverty, the successor to the Mayor's Anti-Poverty Commission, include professional development for adults working with children this age, wraparound services for students in low-performing middle schools and the expansion of the Mayor's Youth Academy.
These initiatives can help the Tristans in the here and now. The bigger question is whether the metro area can find the will to expand opportunity and transform living conditions in our most challenged neighborhoods by ending the economic, transportation and social isolation that have created a self-perpetuating cycle of hopelessness.
One of the most poignant scenes in the film is when Tristan looks out on the vistas of Mosby Court and asks his friends why they think they can "fix the unfixable." It's a pessimistic take, but one supported by the weight of this city's history.
"Troop 491" is a notable contribution to the work of trying to make the city's future markedly different from its past. It immerses us in Tristan's world to have us emerge, 90 minutes later, having been glad — perhaps for a complicated set of reasons — we were there. And if it spurs us to think about what it all means for the Tristans among us, for the people of Church Hill, for all Richmond residents, then so much the better. S
TO SEE IT
"Troop 491: The Adventures of Muddy Lions" will be screened Dec. 29 at 3 p.m. at the Henrico Theatre at 305 E. Nine Mile Road.
Bert Ashe is a University of Richmond associate professor of English and American Studies. Thad Williamson is a University of Richmond associate professor of leadership and co-chair of the Maggie L. Walker Initiative for Expanding Opportunity and Fighting Poverty.
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