96 Minutes (which is 94 minutes long, but I'm not complaining) is built like one of those intense dramas where the protagonists get into a bad situation and quickly find everything spiraling out of control. But in this case, it's a moron whose dumb mistake gets himself and his friend in trouble, followed only by a lot of yelling and hand-wringing. The plot doesn't spiral; it falls with a thud and then just lies there.
The film's bareness is partially disguised by first-time writer/director Aimee Lagos' use of that old standby, the flash-forward. We begin with four people in a speeding car, one passenger bleeding from a gunshot wound while everyone else screams profanity as the camera whips back and forth between the front and back seats. Then we go back to that morning and watch these characters' paths start to cross, occasionally jumping ahead to the speeding-car-and-gunshot timeline as if to remind us that, hey, don't worry, eventually things will get exciting.
In the meantime, representatives of various segments of society are going about their lives, unaware of the speeding cars and gunshots that the future holds for them. At a tony-looking university, Carley (Brittany Snow) prepares to graduate and has a tearful phone conversation with her unsupportive father. Her classmate Lena (Christian Serratos) fights with her boyfriend and smashes up her car. At a local high school, the scary kind with metal detectors, a kid named Dre (Evan Ross) is struggling to graduate and escape the gang violence that has captured most of his friends. One of those friends, Kevin (Jonathan Michael Trautmann), who doesn't even bother with school anymore, lives with his trampy mother while seeking to prove his value to the neighborhood gangsters. A decent man named Duane (David Oyelowo) runs a barbecue joint and casts a disdainful eye at the thugs who come and go.
A random sequence of events leads to one of these people being shot by one of the others. The clear course of action is to get the victim to a hospital, but the perpetrators fear the legal consequences and instead drive around for a long time, engaging in the aforementioned shouting and arguing. That's what I mean when I say the plot doesn't spiral. Dre and Kevin don't make a series of mistakes that keep making the situation worse. They make one mistake -- avoiding the hospital -- and then spin their wheels, literally and figuratively.
There are a few puzzling attempts at Crash-style racial commentary (Dre and Duane are black; Kevin, Carley, and Lena are white), mainly by way of police officers hassling law-abiding minorities instead of the real criminals. This comes across as heavy-handed, though -- and, worse, pointless. A conversation early in the film about capital punishment must have been intended to add weight to the movie's themes, but those themes are never really developed.
It's not what you'd call a "bad" movie, though. It's competently made, and Evan Ross' performance as Dre is rather soulful. It's more like a film student's half-decent senior project: a solid effort, well-intentioned, clumsy in the execution, but with a hint of greater potential.