Newlyweeds changes pace of stoner films

With Shaka King’s feature-length directorial debut, Newlyweeds follows the journey of a marijuana-reliant couple who are struggling to get by in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York.  The gritty comedy may not be one of the most humorous stoner films, but its weighty subject matter provides an important contrast of the experience and consequence of getting high to the other marijuana films that oversaturate the industry.

Trae Harris (left) plays Nina and Amari Cheatom (right) plays Lyle in Shaka King's debut feature film Newlyweeds. Photo courtesy of Eye For Film

Trae Harris (left) plays Nina and Amari Cheatom (right) plays Lyle in Shaka King’s debut feature film Newlyweeds. Photo courtesy of Eye For Film

The film follows the lives of Lyle (Amari Cheatom) and Nina (Trae Harris), a young couple whose overwhelming love and devotion for each other seems to be overshadowed only by marijuana.  Lyle laments through his day as a repo-man, a thankless job where he is forced to watch the suffering that his job causes, and the only way that he can cope with his life is recreational marijuana usage.  His day-to-day lifestyle clashes with Nina’s hopes for a better future.  She wants to save up money in order to go out and travel the world, which Lyle shows reluctance for.  He lives on a day-by-day basis, and does not seem to have any dreams for his future.

This ultimately proves to be a point of conflict in their lives. Marijuana ends up playing a major role in both their relationships and their life decisions. But their addiction to weed gets them into a lot of trouble, and they struggle to keep their relationship as a result.  Cheatom and Harris do a stellar job of portraying this subtle and nuanced struggle with marijuana addiction.  But those looking for a nice romantic comedy should not get too excited: this film focuses on marijuana, not their love.  It explores how marijuana addiction affects personal relationships, not the strength of love despite all obstacles.

Newlyweeds does not take the more conventional path of movies that focus on marijuana.  Stoner comedies too often are over the top in order to give out cheap laughs.  It is a much more realistic portrayal of recreational marijuana usage.  These characters are not simply getting high and getting caught up in some crazy scenarios.  Rather, they smoke in order to escape from their lives.  After Lyle gets punched by a man who is upset that Lyle is taking away his grandmother’s refrigerator, all he wants is to relax by getting high.  This is a refreshing change of pace from movies like Pineapple Express, which implement a lot of exaggeration and absurd situations for comedic effect.

While Newlyweeds portrays a more realistic usage of marijuana, the film  is a much more mature type of comedy.  The tone of the movie is so serious that it would seem almost out of place to categorize it as a comedy.  The film is not particularly humorous, but perhaps that is for the better.  The scenes that depict the characters when they are high seem blasé, lacking originality or the audacity of a film like Pineapple Express.  But if these scenes were that gaudy, they would have just seemed out of the place in the world of this film.  One of the more humorous points of the film is where Lyle and his coworker, Jackie (Tone Tank), are arguing about whether marijuana or alcohol is worse for the body.  Yet this scene is short and does not really hit home.  It may just seem tough to laugh at these people when you see how their lives are practically falling apart as a result of their addictions to marijuana.  As a result, the subject matter just does not allow itself be comedic.  It would be better off being considered a drama with moments of comedic matter.

Both major players give a greater depth to the story by making their relationship with marijuana grittier and more realistic.  They play characters that rely on weed to get through the day, not just for fun.  Their performances, both individually and together, are intense and emotional.  They demonstrate how marijuana both unites their characters and also causes the rifts in their relationship.  Harris, in her acting debut, plays with a subtly of a much more experienced actress.  She capably shows both Nina’s love for Lyle and her struggle to continue on with his lifestyle.  Her and Cheatom, who recently had a role in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, play off each other with great chemistry.  They are also supported by great supporting roles by Isiah Whitlock Jr. and Hassan Johnson, both of whom are Wire alum.  Tone Tank also does a great job as Jackie, Lyle’s friend who also struggles with drug problems but does not seem to resist as much.  The cast overall does a wonderful job of demonstrating marijuana use in a realistic light.

Even if the humor is lacking, Shaka King does a wonderful job writing and directing his first feature length film.  The characters and plot are all well fleshed out, and they merge seamlessly into this depiction of Brooklyn.  The cinematography truly makes a chillingly beautiful picture out of Bedford-Stuyvesant, a lower class urban neighborhood.  Even though he tackles drug addiction in an urban setting, it is not in a dismal or depressing manner.  The film’s honesty shows the issue for what it really is, and that is a social issue.  Newlyweeds delves a lot deeper into the issue of marijuana use than most stoner comedies and comes out as a stronger film for it.

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