To begin with, Train Ride is yet another of the "Ultra-Indies". That might confuse many, considering the cast that writer/ director Rel Dowdell managed to line up for this 2000 film. Most of the "Ultra-Indies" feature up-and-coming actors primarily unknown up until now. But Train Ride displays such talents as Wood Harris, Russell Hornsby, Lana "MC Lyte" Moorer, KaDee Strickland and, most notably, one of our best actresses Esther Rolle in her final screen appearance.
How do these things match up? For Hornsby, this was among his first appearances on screen and the now well-known Harris had certainly made some noteworthy showings in some noteworthy shows, but had yet to make the splash that he has since then. Similarly, this was KaDee Strickland's first break (Train Ride, though released in 2000, was filmed in 1998). MC Lyte and certainly Esther Rolle had already been well established by this time (and, sadly, Esther Rolle passed away before the completion of this film), so why would they agree to appear in this independent film? Simple. They believed in it. So do I.
Most college films feature a Dean that looks more like Maude Findlay than Florida Evans. However the Dean of Students who opens the main part of the film with her introductory speech is very well played by Esther Rolle herself. You know who I didn't see on that stage? Maude.
Taking that speech in are three bright-eyed freshmen: Anika Hawkins' Tandy, MC Lyte's Katrina Daniels and Nicole Prescott's Stefanie. What follows is a rockin' college party, along with the subsequent house chill-out. The host, Will (Harris) brings along two buddies, Ellis (Hornsby) and Ron (Thomas Braxton Jr.) to entertain the ladies with drinks and an edgy game of truth or dare. But after Tandy and Stefanie retire for the evening, Will and Ellis conspire to concoct a date-rape drink and a plan to "run a train" on Katrina. Even reluctant Ron gets into the action as documented by the video that Will makes of the "festivities".
"Will" turns out to be an apt name for Wood's character. Will is all intent and power, a smooth, Machiavellian planner who is both up to no good and convinced that he is in the right in his dangerous hedonism. This slick operator seems prepared for just about every domino that should fall.
Katrina, on the other hand, was not only completely unsuspecting, but is completely destroyed, partially from what she recalls, partially from what she can't remember. And it gets worse once the story (and the rumors) starts to circulate around campus. Tandy and Stefanie are riddled with outrage and guilt while Ron and Ellis start to get scared and desperate. MC Lyte is tragically excellent as the troubled victim who (obviously and naturally) can't even tell her father (Johnnie Hobbs Jr.) what happened.
The acting is all around very good. Wood Harris truly understands the complexities of his character. Will's "Evil" is that he doesn't truly see himself as flawed no matter how bad he gets. He seems to unravel (all the while maintaining most of his cool) only because of an "unfair" situation that happened to him, not because of what he has done. Meanwhile, Hornsby and Braxton develop a frantic fear with a much more real guilt than Harris' snake-like character could ever feel. As I said, MC Lyte does a wonderful job, and Hawkins and Prescott manage to keep up with her showing a depth of emotion.
It may seem obvious to state that Esther Rolle shines even brighter here. The amazing thing is that her scenes amount to a cameo, yet her acting is some of the most memorable of this entire full-length (93 minute) piece. Part of this is, as I said, because Rolle believed in this film well before it was actually a full-length, 93 minute piece. She even appeared in Dowdell's basis for this film, his graduate thesis and cared enough to fly out to appear in this film (in spite of her illness and need for dialysis) to appear again. Her heart-breaking, outraged outburst when she hears of the news and its aftermath would be worthy of a Tony Award if the film had been a play. There is little wonder why the film is dedicated to her memory. Still, the dedication would be worthwhile even if Esther Rolle were still with us. She is really very, very good here.
Although this Indie was low in budget and does show a cost-cutting measure or two, the film never feels like an amateur piece. The editing, lighting and sound all work very well and transcend the low budget of this film. It all comes together to form a very high-class, low budget film about higher education and low morality.
It's hard to really call this film "Uplifting", though it is realistic and intelligent in its storytelling. Four Stars out of Five for Train Ride. I highly recommend this film! It has some ups and downs, mostly budgetary, but generally transcends its budget for a fine film experience and showcases a great deal of talent both in front of and behind the camera. Rel Dowdell is a graduate of Fisk University and holds a Masters Degree from Boston University. The original short film thesis version of Train Ride (starring Esther Rolle as well as Dowdell's classmate Russell Hornsby) won the Redstone Film Festival there. In short, Train Ride in any version may be hard to watch, but would be a mistake to avoid. Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got some Good Times to catch up on. Eighty-Three episodes of Rolle! And then there's Maude! And then there's Maude!
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