Shaka King's film Newlyweeds - a romantic tragic-comedy about a pair of Brooklyn stoners - doesn't use its NYC setting as a glamorous or hip embellishment. It's just where the characters live, and where King grew up. Newlyweeds is a naturalistic portrait, with a few hallucinatory flourishes, of a very specific relationship in a very specific place.
The film stars Amari Cheatom as Lyle, as a dreamy repo man, a job that looks so grim and painful (both physically and emotionally) that it isn't hard to see why he smokes weed constantly. Trae Harris plays Nina, who clearly comes from a far more secure, middle-class background. She is happy to blaze the days away with Lyle, but it also becomes evident that when trouble comes she has far more resources to draw on. When Lyle tells her she needs to get a job if they are to save up enough money to travel, she simply smiles and shrugs, "That's easy, now that I have a reason." Her breezy attitude about employment doesn't sit right as we watch his backbreaking, spirit-crushing work.
Newlyweeds captures the look of neighborhood life in Brooklyn perfectly. Anyone who has ever lived or hung out in the northern half of the borough will recognize the walk-up apartments, beer-stocked bodegas, and stately brownstones (where Nina's parents live, far from the main action of the film).
Lyle's scenes with Jackie (Tone Tank), his blustering, jerkish repo partner, are pitch perfect. The two men's lacerating back-and-forth doesn't sound like Quentin Tarantino dialogue; they sound like real guys. Some of the film's funniest moments are Lyle's high daydreams of himself as a Blaxploitation hero, with Jackie as his white sidekick, busting down doors and laying waste to gun-wielding thugs with roundhouse kicks.
But the heart of the film is the slow disintegration of Lyle and Nina's relationship as minor mistakes mount to ever more dangerous altitudes. The consequences the couple face for their hazy screwups are far more serious because of their race, especially in Lyle's case: His god-awful repo job is the only thing that's maintaining the roof over his head. When faced with precariousness like that it's understandable that Nina's late-breaking desire to know how it feels to spend time not stoned is quickly dismissed: "I already know how it feels, that's why I smoke."
Showing at 7 p.m. Tuesday at International House, 3701 Chestnut St. Tickets are $5 for members, $8 for students, and $10 for the general public. Shaka King, named a filmmaker to watch at Sundance, will appear for a Skype Q&A after the screening.