Odalis (Al Thompson) wakes by 6am each morning. His day is jumpstarted by loud hiphop on his clock-radio, his first move always a call to his best friend Tico (Kareem Saviñon), ensuring they’re both on their way at the same time. They work for a concession stand at the Statue of Liberty, unloading cases from the Miss Ellis Island ferry and selling soft-serve yogurt to tourists in Miss Liberty foam hats. It’s a living for Dominican-born Odalis, who has plans to complete his GED and go to college. He prefers to be called “Derrick.”
At its start, Liberty Kid looks to be another movie about kids in Brooklyn, living in crowded apartments and managing complicated lives (as Derrick puts it, “I’ve got bills to pay… and child support for the twins,” his three-year-olds with an unseen ex). But it’s not long before this small, extraordinary movie begins to unveil its many dimensions. During a night out with a couple of girls, Tico rolls his eyes when Derrick’s self-description turns “corny”: D calls himself a “visionary” (one of the girls wonders, “What’s that, a dreamer?”), but Tico, he “prefer[s] to live in the moment, you feel me?” Back in high school, before they were kicked out, Derrick was called “Peace Pipe,” because he was “stuck somewhere in the middle,” a Dominican kid who looks black, trying to keep peace between the Spanish kids and the black kids.
Like many people’s, Derrick’s plans are derailed on 9/11. He and Tico are on the island when the planes hit. The first one looks like it’s an accident, so their boss sends the crew back to work; Derrick watches the two Towers burning through a pair of coin-operated binoculars, sirens and chopper sounds faint in the background as the distant, bounded view offers a smart allusion to the mass-mediation of the day. Once the shock of the attacks is over, the effects build and shift over months: at the corner bodega where he buys his Newports, Derrick spots an Arabic-looking kid being harangued by a crew of others. As the frightened kid hides in the back and the others press their faces against front window, Derrick makes peace again, as best he can, offering to walk the boy home, the mini bullies scattering as he approaches the door.
The film follows the slow turns and declensions in Tico and Derrick’s options. When the Statue closes, they lose their jobs and can’t find new ones in their depressed neighborhood. They slide into street corner drug deals, promoting parties, and a patently ridiculous insurance scam that has Derrick slamming his junker into a friend’s car in hopes of a $15,000 payday promised by a “lawyer” one of the kids says he knows. Derrick’s mom Awilda (Rosa Ramos) worries. She’s headed back to the DR to care for her own ailing mother, and cautions her son before she leaves, about “those boys you think are your friends.” When he ends up beaten and bloodied during a petty drug deal arranged by Tico, Derrick also misses a chance to see Denice (Raquel Jordan), a pretty girl he’s just met.
Even as his options dwindle and he feels betrayed by Tico, Derrick follows through on taking his GED. When he takes the exam, the shots are familiar but also evocative: on the sidewalk he passes flyers, efforts to find people missing on 9/11; in the test room, close-ups of his pencil and glances around the room at other kids’ heads bowed over their papers tell you even before his voiceover how he’s feeling: “What am I even doing here?” he sighs, pencil tapping. “I need to smoke a blunt right now, if I had a blunt I could answer all this shit, I know I could.” In the hallway outside the test room, Derrick passes Army recruiters are taking names and handing out t-shirts, in English and Spanish (“Yo soy Army”), they can have “just for signing here, to receive further information.”
Delicately and profoundly, Liberty Kid, winner of the Best Film award at the New York Latino Film Festival, reveals the far-reaching, long-lasting effects of 9/11 on a kid without resources or recourse. Smart, charismatic, and ambitious, Derrick is nevertheless a product of his time and place. If other movies about the aftermath of 9/11 focus on broad themes — rising fears or variously defined “politics” — Ilya Chaiken’s movie is more interested in details, the small, indelible ways that lives have been changed, the consequences of loneliness, poverty, and depression, daily life in the hood. Derrick, erstwhile “Peace Pipe,” resents and admires Tico’s ability to “live in the moment,” to forget obligations or insist on them when convenient. Derrick considers his many responsibilities and finds few solutions.
Indeed, Derrick is skeptical of the Army recruiter’s suggestion that joining up is only about opportunities (“In the army,” he says, “You’ll get money for college and you’ll live rent free”). Asked what his mother thinks of his enlistment, Derrick admits, “She’s afraid I’m gonna have to go to war.” Right, says the recruiter, looking earnestly into the boy’s eyes, “That’s a mother’s job, to make my job more complicated.” Even if he does go to war, the recruiter smiles, chances are good he’ll come back fine: “You know how many men were lost in Afghanistan so far? A whole lot less than here in the hood.”
It’s a cheap tactic, and typical. Derrick signs his name, the film crosscutting to Tico, embodying another possibility, busted by undercover cops for selling on the corner: it’s a stupid move, and also typical. Two routes to “manhood,” in prison and in the army: if Tico survives more or less intact, it’s because he’s built for resistance, angry and expectant. Finding Derrick months later, he’s frustrated that his friend, suffering from PTSD and sleeping in his car, won’t take him up on the chance to live with him and his babymama. A group session featuring real Iraq war veterans (“Sometimes I feel alienated, like I don’t belong here sometimes” or again, “I can’t sleep, like my heart starts racing… There was a time when I was having like three or four nightmares a night”) illustrates the dead end facing Derrick, having served his country, now coming “home.” The effects of his wars — multiple, low-key, endless — were in motion long before he went to Afghanistan.