on October 19, 2001 by Michael Tunison
   The act of shooting photos becomes a metaphor for cutting through life's distractions in "Focus," the feature debut of music video and commercial director Roger Roth. While this earnest tale of a white shutterbug and the talented young black boy he trains to see the world through a camera's eye doesn't always maintain the storytelling clarity the title might imply, its visual style and sense of dramatic urgency make this low-budget drama more than just a series of pretty pictures.

   Initially lacking the necessary drive and focus to pursue his lifelong dream of becoming a professional photographer, white twentysomething Robert (Brandon Karrer) finds himself inspired for the first time in years when he meets Marcus (Gary Gray), a gifted 12-year-old black boy with the telling habit of framing life in his dangerous South Central Los Angeles neighborhood by peering through empty paper towel tubes. Recognizing Marcus' innate artistic ability, Robert trains him in photography, a well-intended act of friendship that takes a dangerous turn when Marcus' resentful older brother Keith (Trent Cameron) and his gun-packing gangbanger friends enter the story.

   Writer-director Roth's way of pushing his characters and situations to the limit dramatically gives his low-budget effort an engaging momentum, though some elements strain believability in the interest of cranking up conflict (Roger continually going out of his way to endanger himself, his girlfriend opposing his life-enriching work with Marcus). The work of the mostly unknown cast is hit-or-miss, with particularly compelling moments coming from Davenia MacFadden ("Random Hearts") as Marcus' loving single mom and the malevolently charismatic Lloyd Avery as the leader of Keith's gang. A prime factor in the film's favor is the inherent visual appeal of the subject matter, which onetime wedding photographer Roth works to artful effect with frequent cuts to expressive still shots commenting on the characters and the way they look at their world. Starring Brandon Karrer, Trent Cameron, Gary Gray, Jennifer Jostyn and Bruce Weitz. Directed and written by Roger Roth. Produced by Echo Gaffney. A Paramount Classics release. Drama. Not yet rated. Running time: 98 min

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