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PERFORMANCES PUSH `FRESH,' `MI VIDA LOCA' TO THE TOP IN BATCH OF 4 INDEPENDENT FILMS.

No less than four low-budget, independent films - two of which gained notoriety at the Sundance Film Festival - hit Salt Lake theaters Friday.

The best of the lot are "Fresh" and "Mi Vida Loca," which deal with modern problems faced by inner-city youth."Guelwaar" is an interesting African satire with some universal themes, and "Fear of a Black Hat" is a rap take on "This is Spinal Tap!"

- "FRESH" was a popular entry in the Sundance Film Festival in January, a harsh look at inner-city life that unfortunately takes a somewhat frivolous twist toward the end. The result is a movie that starts off as serious drama with something to say but ends up looking more like a commercial thriller. It's not a particularly comfortable mix.

Still, there is much to recommend in "Fresh," not the least of which is the film's central performance by young Sean Nelson. Nelson plays the title character, a 12-year-old boy nicknamed "Fresh" (his real name is Michael).

As we meet him in his neighborhood, the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, we see that Fresh has a part-time job before and after school. But he's not delivering newspapers.

In the opening sequence, Fresh knocks on the door of a rundown apartment and is greeted by a plump, kindly mother-figure, who welcomes him in, sits him at the kitchen table and offers chocolate chip cookies. But it quickly becomes apparent that she is a drug-dealer (and user) and Fresh is there to pick up cocaine. He's making his rounds in the morning for a local distributor, all the while fussing that he's going to be late for school. Then, after school, he's hustling crack to neighborhood junkies.

Stone-faced and generally numbed by his lifestyle, Fresh is nonetheless on his way up. His employers see him as hardworking and trustworthy. "The only reason you ain't the man," one tells him, "is you're too little."

Fresh lives in a cramped apartment with his "angel" aunt and 10 cousins. He's concerned about his sister, an addict living with her supplier, and he occasionally meets his hustling, alcoholic father in the park, where they play speed-chess.

This latter element provides the film's catharsis, as his father's lectures about chess manipulations give Fresh an idea about getting revenge on the two top drug dealers in the area. Ultimately, after witnessing two shootings and putting his aunt's overcrowded home in jeopardy, the lad takes action.

Screenwriter Boaz Yakin, who wrote "The Punisher" and Clint Eastwood's "The Rookie," is most sure-handed here in his directing debut. Especially well-staged is a shocking shooting on a basketball court.

Later, however, the film goes down some ill-advised paths, and the fantasy ending doesn't really seem to suit the film. There are also some rather weak performances among other children in the cast, all the more noticeable because Nelson is so startlingly good. The adults are uniformly fine, however - Samuel L. Jackson as Fresh's father, Giancarlo Esposito as one of the dealers, Cheryl Freeman as the aunt and N'Bushe Wright as his sister. There is also an excellent score by Stewart Cope-land ("Rumble Fish").

"Fresh" is rated R for violence, profanity, brief nudity and drugs.

- "MI VIDA LOCA," which is Spanish for "My Crazy Life," takes a unique viewpoint, that of a Hispanic girl gang in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles.

Writer-director Allison Anders ("Gas, Food, Lodging") has assembled a remarkable ensemble cast and extracts exceptional performances from most of the players (though some are rather weak). And Anders begins the film brilliantly, as the first of three major acts in a ripple of stories and subplots is narrated by a circle of characters that expands as the film progresses.

The group is made up of young women who have gang nicknames tattooed on their fingers, even while they preen and talk about boys the way less hardened teenage girls do. They also casually discuss the violence that surrounds them, acknowledging that the men in their lives either wind up in prison, disabled or dead - before age 21.

The central characters are "Sad Girl" (Angel Aviles) and "Mousie" (Seidy Lopez), childhood pals who have become estranged over Ernesto (Jacob Vargas), a local drug-dealer by whom each has a child. Ernesto, meanwhile, declares his love and loyalty to both.

Other plot elements include Ernesto's souped-up car, which becomes the centerpiece for a domino of tragedies; the blond "Whisper," an apprentice drug-dealer, whose character hardens over the course of the film; the introspective "Blue Eyes," who carries on a romantic correspondence with a convict; and "Giggles," an ex-con who has learned not to rely on men for support or comfort.

For the first half or so, this is stunning stuff. But as the film begins to wind down, Anders relies more and more on soap opera machinations. And as the story sinks into conventional strains, so do the characters become more sketchy.

Still, as with "Fresh," this one is satisfying much of the way.

"Mi Vida Loca" is rated R for violence, profanity, vulgarity, sex and drugs.

- "GUELWAAR" is a spare African film, a political satire from an esteemed Senegalese filmmaker, Ousmane Sembene, about a Christian community leader who dies and whose body disappears.

The local police chief tracks down the corpse, only to discover it has been mistakenly buried in a Muslim cemetery. And as the family and local villagers attempt to retrieve the body, a conflict ensues, which brings to the surface festering resentments that nearly result in war.

The victim is Pierre Thioune (Thierno Ndiaye), nicknamed "Guelwaar," which means "Noble One." He was a respected and outspoken figure in the community, but it is hinted that Pierre may have been killed because of his outspoken views, particularly on the subject of aid, which he renounced as being more harmful than helpful.

This is a fascinating story, filled with interesting characters, and Sembene's camera captures the cultural distinctions of the people and the countryside in a compelling visual manner. But the film is interminably slow, and some of the speeches seem to go on forever. The pacing is simply too sluggish for the film's nearly two-hour length.

"Guelwaar" is not rated but would probably get a PG for violence and profanity.

- "FEAR OF A BLACK HAT" is an amusing spoof of gangsta rap artists and their music, similar to last year's "CB4." And, like that film, it is obviously modeled on "This is Spinal Tap!" which used a British band as a means of lampooning heavy metal and the music industry in general.

"This is Spinal Rap," perhaps?

Unfortunately, a little of this goes a long way, and "Fear of a Black Hat" quickly runs out of steam as enters its final third. (Although I did laugh at the scenes under the closing credits.)

Rusty Condieff, who also wrote and directed, stars with Mark Christopher Lawrence and Larry B. Scott, as, respectively, Ice Cold, Tone Def and Tasty-Taste. They are the rap group NWH, which stands for Niggaz With Hats (which, they insist, is a statement about slaves who were forced to work in the fields without any headgear). And, as you might guess, the hats are about all that distinguish them from the gaggle of gangsta rappers out there.

The trio is being trailed by reporter Nina Blackburn (Kasi Lemmons), who is shooting a documentary (as her dissertation), and she sticks with them for a year, even when the group breaks up and each goes his separate way.

Portrayed as temperamental, gun-crazy "artists," one of the better running gags has them constantly complaining about their politically incorrect songs being censored, but then repeatedly ordering Nina to turn off her camera when they feel the need to beat the tar out of somebody.

And some of this is funny stuff. But too often Cundieff settles for gags that are just silly or vulgar. He's at his best when the characters attempt to be socially significant, as when they explain away their exploitative lyrics. But the film's weakest link is character development - none of the characters here rise above caricature.

"Fear of a Black Hat" is rated R for violence, profanity, vulgarity, sex and nudity.