What distinguishes Newlyweeds from the sort of movie that usually has a name like Newlyweeds is that large parts of it appear to have been written stone-sober. First-time feature writer-director Shaka King lets his characters enjoy their pot, but their love of the stuff gradually crosses the line into territory usually considered taboo for weed films: negative consequences. After a mostly light and fluffy first half, the film, which screened at Sundance this year, ultimately becomes a D.A.R.E. lesson. The phrase “gateway drug” is never uttered, but it’s felt.
King establishes the dichotomy of the film’s tone in an early scene where repo man Lyle (Amari Cheatom) and his business partner (Tone Tank) track down a man behind on payments to claim his couch. The sequence is a silly near-homage to Pulp Fiction, with the overweight delinquent babbling in Spanish as he helplessly tries to stop two bumbling guys from carrying his furniture away. It’s only once they’ve loaded up the couch and driven away that Lyle realizes with genuine guilt that he’s so high, he went to the wrong address.
Sequences like these reveal the film’s moral center. While life can be a happy trip for those who toke, there are often prices to pay, and ways to become matter-of-factly addicted to any habit that relieves stress. Lyle’s daily unwinding ritual is to lie in bed smoking with live-in girlfriend Nina (Trae Harris), who finds that getting high is the best way to lead tours at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, until it isn’t anymore. The two dream of traveling beyond New York, but they sideline their long-term plans every time they run out of weed, with Lyle retreating to the pair’s awesomely named dealer, Two For Three (Hassan Johnson).
Some scenes have a goofy, dark energy, reminiscent of the familiar highs of movies like Half Baked. Lyle dons a grizzled disguise to infiltrate the home of another repo victim, and likes to fantasize about life inside a blaxploitation flick. King also peppers his margins with scene-stealers, like The Wire’s Isiah Whitlock Jr. as a fast-talking pusher who tries to deal in jail, and Colman Domingo as a hipper-than-thou pot enthusiast who may be macking on Nina. At other times, King demonstrates inventive technique, with surrealist bad trips and one neat shot from a mask’s-eye-view.
It’s difficult to deduce whether Newlyweeds is too loose, or merely designed to appear too loose; King never fully lets on whether he’s totally in control of his characters and their trajectory. Lyle’s journey into rougher terrain feels fresh in the way it provokes uncomfortable laughter (he becomes indignant when he’s mistaken for a crackhead), while Nina’s parallel descent plays like a sitcom setpiece. Even the film’s title doesn’t make sense, since there’s no evidence Lyle and Nina are married, and they certainly didn’t just start smoking. Yet the movie has a certain dark charm, and often feels like early Spike Lee in its energetic depiction of working-class Bed-Stuy folk. It rolls along in its idiosyncratic way, and promises more good things to come from King. It won’t keep a buzz going, but maybe that’s a plus.