'I used to want to be a cop, but now they steal so much it's probably not right' says one of the disillusioned young toughs in Hurricane Streets, a film whose milieu is similar to that of the controversial Kids. In contrast to that film's shockingly raw cinma-vrit style, first-time director/screenwriter Morgan J. Freeman (not the actor) takes a softer approach likely to evoke real empathy for the troubled youths who populate his tale. The film's streets are those of New York City's gritty Lower East Side, where a disadvantaged 15-year-old troublemaker named Marcus (Brendan Sexton III) spends his time shoplifting and hanging out with his delinquent buddies in 'the clubhouse,' an abandoned bomb shelter near the waterfront.

Marcus' life of petty crime is perhaps the inevitable consequence of his unfortunate family situation: His dad is deceased and mom is in jail for helping smuggle illegal aliens into the U.S. (or so Marcus thinks). Keeping a watchful if not particularly effective eye on him is his Grandma, who runs an East Village bar. Marcus dreams of returning to New Mexico with his mother after she's released, as this is where he was born and, because he suffers from asthma, the Southwest would provide him with a literal breath of fresh air. When he meets 14-year-old Melena (Isidra Vega), suddenly life in the city seems a little brighter. The pair soon become inseparable, a fact her stern disciplinarian father cannot accept. Marcus' contentment with Melena is short-lived, as his world quickly comes crashing in on him--the cops haul him in for pushing stolen goods; against his advice the clubhouse gang starts planning bigger, riskier theft jobs; and he's told the devastating news that his mother's imprisonment is actually for murder and she's not up for release soon. When the gang's big heist yields only $200 and a Timex watch, the writing is on the wall for Marcus--he either escapes his tumultuous life on the streets or faces a future likely to find him locked behind bars. To his credit, Freeman doesn't try to find any easy solutions, and leaves Marcus and Melena's fate gracefully open-ended.

Sexton, who made a memorable impression in Welcome to the Dollhouse, is quite effective in capturing the range of jumbled emotions, drives and frustrations of a teenager for whom everyday life is a struggle. Sexton is credible both as a juvenile delinquent and as a benign-spirited dreamer yearning for a less chaotic life. As the clubhouse's resident bad boy, David Roland Frank is a potent reminder of what Marcus could be if he let his irresponsible side take over completely. Also excellent is Antoine McLean as a chubby, good-natured youth who ends up tragically involved in an accidental murder which sets up the climax of the drama. Finally, Isidra Vega is affecting as Marcus' romantic interest, whose abusive home life is no more satisfying than his.

For a debut feature, Hurricane Streets is technically very solid. Freeman's confident direction is aided by exemplary work from cinematographer Enrique Chediak and editor Sabine Hoffman, and the film has a well-chosen soundtrack, featuring a memorably spooky cover of 'Stayin' Alive' by the New York City indie band Supple. Hurricane Streets is unlikely to make much of a blip in the marketplace, but it bodes well for its talented writer-director, who's likely to land a high-profile project in its wake.

--Chris Grunden