Rating: 3 out of 5.

Making its debut at the Pan African Film Festival, crackling drama Caged Birds is overflowing with potent commentary. The dangers of bullying, gun violence, unjust incarceration, and racial profiling in schools are among the vital topics tackled by writer/director Fredrick Leach. Occasionally hampered by the lower budget and, thusly, rough around the edges, Caged Birds nevertheless has a passionate story to tell. 

Young and tremendously intelligent, black high school senior Jordan (Kamil McFadden) is looking forward to his college years. Jordan—constantly tormented by white bully Blake (Justin Duncan)—becomes ensnared in a prank to give his bullies a taste of their own medicine. After Blake humiliates Jordan’s cousin, EJ (Bentley Green), the two young men rope in student Kevonte. Together, the trio are all involved in a prank-mugging gone wrong that leaves two bullies dead. All three young men must grapple with the consequences of the terrible deed as the authorities grasp for where to place the blame.

The film’s smart script delves deep into victims driven to their breaking point. It does a great job of plunging us into the headspace of the characters. Each of them is relatively complex, though EJ does border on a stereotype at times. Jordan has a strong moral compass, yet he is consistently being used by others. Kevonte is the most sympathetic of our cast and perhaps the most relatable. Initially, Kevonte berates Jordan to do his homework for him. He goes through an immense emotional growth from semi-bully to being affected tremendously by the deaths. The others refuse to take any blame and try to pin it all on Kevonte. The acting performances are where Caged Birds is most successful. A couple moments fall flat due to an incomplete score that could hopefully be remedied before full release. The movie crafts a beating heart through the unfortunate circumstances of our characters, one of which meets a tragic fate. Caged Birds was at least partially funded via Indiegogo, and played as part of the Pan African Film Festival’s 2021 selection. 

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