Despite it being a good few years since both franchises came to an end, Twilight and The Hunger Games remain the obligatory point of reference for every new YA adaptation. A film like The Hate U Give, searing, intense and one that commands your attention, puts the escapades of Bella Swan and Katniss Everdeen in perspective – because for all the hardship those girls suffered, their pain barely scratches the surface of what Starr Carter has to endure.
Adapted from Angie Thomas’ acclaimed bestseller – a watershed moment for diversity in the YA books industry – and justly so, Thomas writes with a scalpel – The Hate U Give follows Starr, a girl born and raised in Garden Heights, a predominantly black neighbourhood in a hazily-defined part of suburban America.
By the time the movie checks in with Starr she’s successfully compartmentalised her life, splitting herself into two different versions. There’s the girl who’s authentically herself, who embraces her black identity, and the girl who’s approachable, innocuous and palatable for her majority white classmates at Williamson Prep, an upscale academy where most kids drive their own Range Rovers.
She separates her social circles, balancing her doting family with her not very woke friends and well-meaning but doltish boyfriend, Chris. Worlds collide when Starr is the sole witness to the murder of her friend Khalil by a white police officer, and it galvanises the activist within her.
Amandla Stenberg’s performance here is nothing short of sensational – it’s an impassioned, layered calling card for an actor whose talents deserve to better utilised. As Starr, the rage within her grows until it reaches boiling point; Stenberg lets us see every moment of anguish, of sorrow. Frankly, it’s Oscar-worthy, and it’s a pity that the historic aversion to YA films will likely discount her exceptional work.
Stenberg is not the only star who makes the material sing. Director George Tillman Jr. has assembled an enviable cluster of actors to bring Thomas’ characters to life. As Starr’s parents, Regina Hall and Russell Hornsby have arguably some of the biggest heavy-lifting here and they soar. Hornsby in particular radiates the charm and authority a patriarch and pillar of the community like his character needs to possess.
Likewise, Anthony Mackie plays solidly against type as a local kingpin, his charisma as Falcon replaced with a slippery malice; Riverdale’s KJ Apa, Christopher Plummered into the film at the last minute, effortlessly sells Chris’ dorky ignorance.
There are some moments that do detract from the power of the material, unfortunately. Tillman Jr.’s direction is too clumsy for The Hate U Give to achieve greatness, his way of commemorating Khalil verging on mawkish when the film should be at its strongest.
Similarly, stylistic choices like casting scenes set at and around Williamson in a terminally icy-blue, clinical filter to clash with the warm honey glow of Garden Heights feel heavy-handed, and one particular scene during the climax is very out of keeping with the rest of the film, to the point where it disrupts the flow at such a crucial moment.
That being said, The Hate U Give gets so close to perfection; it’s a YA adaptation so packed to the gunwales with feeling and emotion and real, wonderful people you fall for that it makes up for every anaemic Hunger Games knock-off. Hats off to everyone involved as Angie Thomas’ novel has translated into a gripping piece of filmmaking – this is the kind of stuff that should be mandatory viewing in schools.
The Hate U Give is in UK cinemas now.