By People Staff
September 12, 1994 12:00 PM

Sean Nelson, Giancarlo Esposito, Samuel L. Jackson

Nelson plays the title character, an impassive 12-year-old Brooklyn black boy, in this gripping story of survival on the streets and survival of the soul. His life is bisected by Esposito, a silky heroin dealer for whom he is a runner, and his father (the excellent Jackson), a chess whiz and hustler who teaches Nelson life lessons via bishops, pawns and rooks. Jackson doesn’t know about his son’s extracurricular activities; Esposito doesn’t know what an operator his “little man” is. On the side, Nelson runs cocaine for another dealer in the neighborhood, and much to the boy’s chagrin, it’s already made him late to school twice this week. When, in two separate acts of drug-related violence, Nelson loses his best friend and the sweet rope-jumping girl he adores, he puts in play a series of chess-inspired moves to destroy those responsible. What makes Fresh so, well, fresh, is its refusal to go for easy, pat characterizations, particularly of Nelson. He’s not precisely the good kid gone wrong, he’s not a little Damien (though he is able to sit as though watching a movie and munch a candy bar while men are killed right before his eyes). There isn’t a single false note to the dialogue which, except for the very funny scenes of Jackson and Nelson at the chessboard, is a fusillade of obscenities. (R)