Nabil Elderkin's intense drama advances the subgenre of telling stories about the people who live in South Los Angeles by diving deep into its characters' humanity. It feels like a new take on the "inner city" dramatic film subgenre popularized by John Singleton's Boyz n the Hood. The film teeters on going overboard with its stylistic choices, but its main conceit -- showing violence through a video game-style lens -- offers a meta-commentary on young people who've been influenced by violent games. They're intended as entertainment, but for Calvin, Jesse, and Nicky, games are emotional outlets, as well as models for how to see the world. This leads to the friends deciding to bring game-style violence into real life, making real the revenge they act out during their gaming sessions.
But Gully isn't looking to spread a message about the dangers of violent games -- it's more about showcasing the complexity of human life, particularly the lives of people who are often shunned by society due to their status, class, and race. Everyone deserves understanding, compassion, and empathy, and the film makes this point by showing us its characters' traumatic inner worlds. The three main characters' emotional wounds -- from gang violence, police brutality, kidnapping, and sexual abuse -- bond them to each other (and to viewers). But Greg is unique in that, while he was also traumatized by gang violence -- particularly because of his own involvement in it -- his humanity is shown through his wisdom and his genuine kindness. He shows us that people who've been in prison aren't simply "criminals." Instead, the formerly incarcerated are humans like the rest of us: multilayered, complex, and bursting with emotional depth. Indeed, the emotional depth in this movie is hard to ignore, and the characters do resonate. Yes, the film could have focused more on how each character could have been redeemed, instead of just one. And seeing two key characters meet tragic ends is expected, but still sad. The film's end may lead audiences to ask themselves how they could be wrongly judging others' actions, without thinking about the experiences that led them to that point.