Movie Review: Penn and Arquette’s kids shine in the Philly “street” romance — “Signs of Love”

I’m not being flippant when I refer to the gritty, soulful urban drama “Signs of Love” as very much “a family affair.” It’s about drugs, dealing and addiction and how that weighs on one neighborhood and one family, and the violence attached to that on the mean streets of Fishtown, Philadelphia.

And it stars two of Sean Penn and Robin Wright’s children, and Rosanna Arquette and her look-alike daughter. So it’s a drama with “bloodlines.” But not all Hollywood nepotism is bad. This is pretty good, and the acting children famous actors are all good in it.

Hopper Penn has just the right rawboned seller/user look for Frankie, our antiheroic hero. When we meet him, the post-high-school punk’s watching the skateboarders and BMX riders practicing their moves on the curbs and culverts under an overpass. A kid leaves his bike for a second, and Frankie’s on it in a flash.

But he’s not just stealing for money or for his own use. He drops in on his teen nephew (Cree Kawa), pretends he doesn’t realize it’s Sean’s birthday, and then gifts him with the new ride.

So I guess that makes it all right.

Sean’s mom, Patty (Dylan Penn) has the self-involved air of an addict She cares about her child, but “taking an interest” seems a stretch.

Frankie deals, buys food for the house, gripes at his sister and once a week, meets his dad (Waas Stevens, outstanding) at their favorite local diner. Dad used to have a thing with a waitress (Roseanna Arquette). Now, he’s a bit too happy to see his boy.

“Are you high?” the kid wants to know. But commenting in his father’s rough appearance is a “You don’t want to go there” line of attack.

“You’re gonna look just like me at this age,” the old man chortles.

Frankie might want to “think about my future,” but his father pops that bubble.

“What? As a pusher? You ruin people’s lives for a living, at $10 bucks a pop!”

But in between sales and pitching in to strong-arm other dealers out of his boss’s territory, Frankie sees a vision. She has heart-stopping smile, freckled, tattooed, slinky and sexy, with a “Desperately Seeking Susan” look about her. He’s just got to make a move.

But Jane (Zoë Bleu Sidel, Arquette’s daughter) is deaf and mostly mute. She reads lips, which is something deaf characters in movies do for screenwriterly convenience. But mainly she communicates via text.

Frankie is smitten, and the beaming Jane is dazzled by his attention. Could this be “Signs of Love?”

Writer-director Clarence Fuller gives us plenty of colorful but utterly realistic characters in his feature debut.

Fuller and his players make this world feel lived-in, down-and-outers scraping by on hustles and government assistance. Frankie is hard-pressed to keep Sean out of this life, considering his environment, and taking into account his sister’s attitude.

“Relax, it’s only oxy,” she tells him when he finds pills the kid’s been selling.

We notice how quick Frankie is to play the victim card and the blame game. He holds his sister and his father responsible for his lot in life.

“Did your dad ever try to sell you for crack?” he spits at Jane, during one testy moment.

Fuller gives his story conventional pitfalls — Jane is well off and headed for college out of state, Frankie’s unsavory work (D’Jour Jones plays a menacing colleague) gets in the way – and a very familiar story arc. Some of the bigger scenes don’t pay off well because the script gives short shrift to “consequences,” except in the most melodramatic moments. And the finale is kind of an eye roller.

But this cast is top drawer, with Hopper Penn taking his first big lead and running with it, his sister furthering her character-turn trip towards a career and Sidel showing promise beyond the “socialite” label prominently-applied to her profile on the Internet Movie Database.

And Fuller shows us enough promise that we can see this movie working, even without the benefit of the scion of Hollywood bluebloods decorating its cast.

Rating: unrated, violence, drug abuse, sexual situations, profanity

Cast: Hopper Penn, Zoë Bleu Sidel, Waas Stevens, Dylan Penn, Da’Jour Jones, Cree Kawa and Rosanna Arquette.

Credits: Scripted and directed by Clarence Fuller. A Blue Fox release.

Running time: 1:38

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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