Like 21 Grams minus the breadth, acting, or visual style, Aimee Lagos’ first feature follows two pairs of friends on a collision course. Brittany Snow and Christian Serratos are college students who are in the dumps due to an absent father and cheating boyfriend, respectively; Evan Ross is closing in on his high-school degree and planning for college, a prospect his gang-banging friends view with skepticism and thinly disguised envy; and Jonathan Michael Trautmann is a sad, sullen 16-year-old hoping to offset his feelings of helplessness by joining those same gang-bangers. Given that 96 Minutes opens with Snow cradling Serratos’ bleeding head in the back of an SUV while Trautmann brandishes a gun in the passenger seat, the question isn’t how their paths will cross but when, and what lessons they’ll inevitably learn.
Lagos draws strong performances from her young cast, as well as David Oyelowo, who plays Ross’ uncle and guardian, but they don’t have much to work with. The younger characters, who still live in the environment that made them, are more easily defined, but Snow reads as a generic heroine and Serratos barely reads at all—not surprising considering she spends much of her screen time prone and whimpering. Lagos shuttles back and forth in time to explain how these four characters ended up sharing a predicament, but the scrambled chronology feels more like a defensive tactic, an attempt to disguise the story’s familiar contours without actually adding any significant complication.
It’s not surprising to learn that Lagos based the story on events that happened when she was a college student, or that her experience of both violent trauma and poverty comes secondhand. Although 96 Minutes proffers equal time to its quartet of protagonists, it becomes clear that its ultimate sympathies lie with Snow, which, given that hers is the only character who’s both wealthy and white, undermines the film’s inchoate humanism. The title refers to the time elapsed between the initial carjacking and when Snow finds help, a fairly arbitrary marker given that the other characters don’t share the same timeline. The movie’s coda, which gives Snow the chance to lecture one of her assailants, is not only superfluous but ugly, unloading a sense of smug superiority while ignoring the issues it purports to address.