This earnest drama is engaging because the true story it's based on is, but its impact is blunted by what feels like reluctance to "go there." Colin Warner spends many years in a maximum-security prison, including four in solitary, but we see little of the brutality and misery that we later learn he experienced. We guess, from the time they're spending together, that two characters will fall in love, but we don't feel that spark develop. When one of the film's central couples breaks up, it's a mild but not deeply affecting surprise, because we haven't seen the depth of their conflict. Perhaps because the filmmakers worked so closely with the real subjects, these highly charged but sometimes ugly aspects of the story might have been too uncomfortable for the production to explore on-screen. As a result, we're not as emotionally involved as we could be. Plus, there's some heavy-handedness to the direction (use of music, pacing, lighting) that flattens out what should be a rollercoaster of hopes and disappointments.
That's not to say Crown Heights is a slog; it's not. It's just not the gut punch it could be. It will inspire outrage, as it should. As it peels back just how long Warner was incarcerated, the outrage and disgust only grow. In what will be the first time most viewers encounter his acting, NFL All-Pro Asomugha delivers the film's most affecting performance. As Warner's best friend, Carl, he conveys dogged determination and intelligence. When he attributes his devotion to the cause to the unshakable feeling that it could just as easily have been him whose life was arbitrarily taken away by the state, it resonates.