Bow Wow on roller skates: what more do you need to know? In Malcolm D. Lee’s sentimental, mostly joyful look-back at the summer of 1978, the long-limbed, charming young actor/rapper plays X (short for Xavier), introduced as he’s struggling to come to terms with the recent death of his mother. This involves some predictable conflicts with his dad Curtis (Chi McBride), who’s having his own troubles (he’s lost his job as well as his beloved wife), and the major metaphor of disco roller skating.
Okay, so it sounds sketchy, even with the ecstatic ’70s soundtrack and the skaters’ sometimes fancy moves. The clichés do abound and the trajectory is unsurprising. But still, Roll Bounce is pleasant beyond expectations, in large part due to an affecting performance by Snoop’s erstwhile gimmicky protégé and Ciara’s current boyfriend: Nick Cannon, look out.
X and his buddies — Mixed Mike (Khleo Thomas), Naps (Rick Gonzalez), Boo (Marcus T. Paulk), and Junior (Brandon T. Jackson) — are introduced as they learn their favorite neighborhood rink is closed and they have to head across town, at Sweetwater Rink. The problem this move brings isn’t just an extra bus ride (no small issue when X is on a strict curfew at home), but also that they’re no longer the big fish in their roller-skating pond, but now compete directly with the champion Sweetwater squad, whose sartorial taste runs to white jumpsuits and whose leader, hard-abbed Sweetness (Wesley Jonathan), is beloved by his fans (who include a bevy of short-shortsed, silent girls with flipped hairdos), and utterly intimidating and self-loving. In a word, he’s the “baddest mo-fo to ever put on a pair skates — he’s got his own theme song like Baretta.” When the annual contest is announced, X and crew decide to practice up to take on the snooty, prima donna champions.
At the same time, tension at home is rising. X and Curtis clash repeatedly, especially as dad insinuates that skating is a waste of time and son notices dad stepping out. That is, he tentatively dons his best patterned shirt and goes to a party where he flirts with vavoomy new neighbor Vivian (Kellita Smith). As Curtis prepares for his evening, X notes with disdain his cologne and, of course, his imminent betrayal of mom’s precious memory. The film’s treatment of this father-son tension ranges from clichéd to affecting (this last thanks to the performers’ earnest efforts), but leads to the requisite explosion and tearful, mutually forgiving embrace.
The father-son drama unfolds parallel to X’s own girl-distractions. As warm-up, he makes friends with Vivian’s daughter Tori (the always engaging and here underused Jurnee Smollett), all awkward angles and long limbs as she learns to skate and gets pelted by immature boys’ water balloons. Trying to keep up with the boys, she gives back as good as she gets when they make fun of her “heavy metal” mouth full of braces (“You need to stop chewing on them yellow crayons,” she retorts, earning groans and cheers).
X’s more serious panic sets in at Sweetwater, where he spots a girl he hasn’t seen for a while, now blossomed into full-on stun mode. More symbolic than developed, Naomi (Meagan Good, not playing a hoodoo girl for the first time this summer) only seems to exist at Sweetwater, where she provides pretty reaction shots as X and the boys ply their routines to music by Kool & The Gang, Bill Withers, Chic, the Bee Gees, and Donna Summer. Naomi serves as occasion for X’s crucial life lesson — don’t be mean to girls who are nice.
While Roll Bounce means to be feel-good, its formulaic route to that end is often tedious. The intertwined plot points start to seem like a checklist leading to the slow-to-come denouement. Will X make it right with Naomi? Will he and dad reconcile? Will Tori be revealed as a beauty when she loses her braces? And oh my goodness, will the wisecracking, booty-ogling garbage collectors (Mike Epps and Charlie Murphy) ever find another outlet for their energies?
Packaging X’s coming of age as marketable nostalgia, the movie includes plentiful references to its era, from What’s Happening!!, Kool-Aid, The Mod Squad, and the Fonz to Jordache Jeans and YooHoo. Still, the most striking emblems of the era are the wigs, especially lively atop the heads of Nick Cannon (as playboy skate-dispenser Bernard) and Wayne Brady (as the enthusiastic DJ for the final skate-off). They’re all for show, and they’re sensational.