'Blindspotting' opens

eyes with unexpected

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Mick LaSalle
, San Francisco Chronicle

eyes with unexpected

'Hamilton' star Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal of Oakland make one of the year's best films with 'Blindspotting'

``Blindspotting'' is one of the year's great films, and somehow you can tell from the opening moments. We see a montage of various Oakland sights on a split screen: kids jumping rope, the facade of a Whole Foods store, skateboarders, a brawl on a BART train. And accompanying this, on the soundtrack, is the drinking song from the first act of ``La Traviata.''

What a weird, inspired juxtaposition of sight and sound. Any other filmmaker would have gone with hip-hop, but director Carlos Lopez Estrada went with opera, and that synthesis creates something unexpected. It's the sense that we're seeing the life of a place, the sense that this is a world of grand emotions and predicaments that must be seen in that way, not as a culture or subculture, but as something universal.

The film was written by Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, who also take the lead roles, but such is the fusion of intention between the director and the screenwriters that the movie has the feeling of having sprung from the same mind. The filmmakers adopt, as if spontaneously, a tone that allows for humor, lightness, absurdity, and even some flirtations with the surreal. Yet an undertone of tension pervades. Even when things seem to be going well, there is always the possibility of a sudden plunge into shattering violence.

It takes place in an Oakland feeling the strains of gentrification. Collin (Diggs) is newly out of prison, having served a short sentence for battery, and these are his last few days in a halfway house. In the first scene, we see him sitting in a car, while his best friend, Miles (Casal) is trying to buy a gun from the Uber driver. It turns out, there are guns everywhere in the car, a ridiculous number of guns.

This small scene introduces a comic, extreme tone that's part of the movie's palette, even as it establishes two things: 1) Collin is a reasonable guy who does not want to go back to jail; and 2) He'd be a safe bet never to go back to prison if it weren't for his choice of best friend. Miles is a fundamentally decent guy, but he has bad judgment, a hair-trigger temper, and he's a little bit nuts.

The filmmakers suggest that this feeling that anything can go wrong at any time isn't a concoction of the movie, but is an aspect of Oakland itself making its way into the frame. In an early scene, Collin is stuck at a long red light, at a quiet intersection, trying to make it back to the halfway house in time for the curfew. Already, there's tension. Maybe he'll be late. Maybe he'll get impatient, go through the red light and end up back in jail. And then, out of nowhere, something horrible happens. He is the sole witness to a grievous crime that he knows he can never report.

If you think, from reading this, that you know where the movie has to go, you're guessing wrong. ``Blindspotting'' defies expectation and avoids anything resembling formula. It follows its own course, with an instinct for placement and economy. Scenes end before they normally would. Issues are resolved off camera, in between scenes -- until you start assuming they will be, and then the movie finds ways to surprise you by not resolving them. May these filmmakers always be so lucky -- it's as if this time they couldn't make a false move.

The pivotal element here is Diggs, as an actor. The audience's experience of ``Blindspotting'' is sitting there worrying about Collin. If you don't care about Collin, there's no movie. Fortunately, Diggs, who is best known for playing Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson in ``Hamilton,'' is someone who can enlist audience support by standing there. And Rafael Casal makes Miles fascinating -- bottled-up, angry and confused, a light-haired white native who looks like the city's newest residents, when he's very much the old guard.

But ``Blindspotting'' is more than just a showcase for Diggs and Casal. The whole ensemble is strong, most notably Jasmine Cephas Jones as Miles' level-headed wife and Jamina Gavankar as Collin's straitlaced ex-girlfriend. Notice, as well, Ethan Embry, who plays a racist white cop. He has perhaps three lines in the entire film, but he makes a powerful impression in a key scene.

``Blindspotting'' will go down as one of the good things by which 2018 will be remembered. It's a serious work of passion, intuition and artistic intelligence.

Mick LaSalle is The San Francisco Chronicle's film critic. Email: mlasalle@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @MickLaSalle


4 stars out of 4 stars Drama. Starring Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal. Directed by Carlos Lopez Estrada. (R. 96 minutes.)

### PHOTO: DATEBOOK_blindspotting0720_20180716-073955.JPG [Film Review - Blindspotting]

### CAPTION: This image released by Lionsgate shows Rafael Casal, left, and Jasmine Cephas Jones in a scene from ``Blindspotting.'' (Lionsgate via AP)

### PHOTO: DATEBOOK_blindspotting0720_20180716-073955.JPG [Film Review - Blindspotting]

### CAPTION: This image released by Lionsgate shows Daveed Diggs, left, and Janina Gavankar in a scene from ``Blindspotting.'' (Lionsgate via AP)

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