Chicago, the summer of 1978. X (Bow Wow), short for Xavier, and his friends enjoy spending many hours skating at the local roller skating rink. When the skating rink closes, they attend the final skate like people attending a wake. His father, Curtis (Chi McBride, TV's "Boston Public", "House"), who is having trouble finding a new job and mourning the loss of his wife, takes out his frustrations on his son. Curtis is trying to find a job as an engineer, and settles for a job as a janitor. Soon, X and his friends decide to start trekking to the north side and the Sweetwater Rink, which is much more elaborate, busy and full of people. There, they develop a rivalry with Sweetness (Wesley Jonathan) and his team of four skaters who have dominated the big annual skate-off. X also becomes reacquainted with an old school friend, Naomi (Meagan Good), who moved to the north side and has now blossomed into a beautiful young lady.
"Roll Bounce", the newest film from director Malcolm Lee ("Undercover Brother"), a cousin of Spike, is a film with many problems, but the choreographed skating segments are fun and they help to offset the many narrative problems throughout.
Set in the late 70s, the film has a certain amount of fun depicting that bygone era. When it does it right, the fun is infectious. At times, the depiction is attempted in an earnest way. X and his friends are into the music of the time and great music from Earth, Wind & Fire, Kool and the Gang and others fills the soundtrack. This is the type of music they love and skate to, so we hear a lot of it. We learn early on why X is so fond of skating and it is a little touching, making his character a little real to us. He wears the same old pair of skates, pretty much all day, either at the rink, in his neighborhood, or when he is out doing his paper route.
When the film does it poorly, the fun grinds to a halt. At other times, the depictions become much more stereotypical and comical, not always with good results. Nick Cannon appears as a Skate Boy in the more upscale Sweetwater rink. He is basically the guy who rents out the skates, yet he thinks he is king of the rink, a real ladies man. His afro is huge and he seems to only talk in the stereotypical slang expressions of the day. Really, his character serves no purpose except to give one of X's friends the wrong size of skate on a consistent basis, a lame attempt at comedy. I suspect that the fact that Nick Cannon is a well-known celebrity among teens made his participation a selling point for the film. The role is actually embarrassing to watch because it is so over the top, unbelievable and not consistent with the better elements of the film. The role would be more fitting in a bad television sitcom.
Wayne Brady also makes a brief appearance as a DJ for the big skate off. Hiding under a huge afro and wearing a dashiki and large sunglasses, he appears to not want to be recognized. Maybe this is a good thing because the role could be played by anyone; it really doesn't do anything for his resume.
There is also a pervasive negative quality in how many of the characters treat each other. In one scene, when they arrive at the new skating rink, a white guy skates by, in tight white pants, doing ballet-like movements causing the kids to start making disparaging comments about homosexuals. When an Asian guy is present, disparaging comments about Asians. Thankfully, these moments are relatively few and far between. But the kids also bad mouth one another, in front of each other, they bad mouth friends when they aren't around. I could maybe understand how this would happen around a group of teens, but there is a scene in which Curtis, X's dad, attends a neighborhood party and there are comments and shots of women that are also more than a little denigrating. Why did anyone feel this was necessary? Perhaps it happened a lot during the time, if the film is in fact trying to accurately portray the period, but there doesn't seem to be any consequence for it and anyone in the demographic this film is aimed at (pre-teens and teens) might view this as acceptable behavior today. Let's move beyond this.
The story is very earnest at points, trying to deal with X and his father's grief, both in different ways. As Curtis tries to deal with his grief, he hides his unemployment from his family, to protect his dignity. This story provides a nice counterpoint to the more sitcomy aspects of the comedy. There is also a pretty good relationship between X and his younger sister. But at others, the story is full of clichs and melodrama. The resolution of the problems between X and his father seems rushed and forced; as though the filmmakers realized they were running out of time and needed to end things quickly. Tori (Jurnee Smollett), a young girl who becomes a part of X's group of friends, has huge braces on her teeth. Naturally, this prompts many of his friends, including Junior (Brandon Jackson) to start throwing barbs at her. Thankfully, she doesn't hesitate to return the insults. Later, she becomes a sort of Cupid to X and Naomi and then, just in time for the big Skate Off, the braces come off and she becomes a beautiful swan, falling in love with someone in a very predictable way. Her performance is good, but the writing is not. There is also a brief moment between Sonya (Busisiwe Irvin), Tori's single mom, and Curtis. Sonya starts yelling at Curtis for taking Tori to the skating rink with her son. Naturally, they soon start dating and caring for each other.
But, the skating scenes are quite good. Because of X's love for his skates, he has them on all the time. If he isn't practicing in his neighborhood, he is skating through his paper route, grooving to his headphones, or he is skating at one of the rinks with his friends. He is quite good at it and is able to come up with some nice, choreographed moves. His friends are also good, possibly from hanging out with him all the time, I'm not sure, but they seem to love to skate. And it shows. As they become rivals to Sweetness' group, we see that they could actually beat the other team. But X and his friends recognize that they aren't quite that good and need to come up with some new routines. They start watching kung fu movies and looking everywhere for inspiration. These scenes are fun and accurately depict the joy these young skaters experience from this summer on wheels.
If you are able to sit through the bad and mundane to get to the enjoyable skating scenes, then go to a bargain matinee. If not, rent the DVD and skip to the best moments.