It’s the summer of 2013 and spray cans rattle as Reefa (Tyler Dean Flores), an ambitious, 18-year-old graffiti artist, paints his signature symbol — an eye surrounded by flower petals — illegally on a wall in his suburban Miami neighborhood. Later his father (José Zúñiga) a Colombian immigrant nervously awaiting the arrival of the family’s green cards, discovers it, and forces Reefa to whitewash over it before the authorities arrive. Prickling with adolescent resentment, the young man does so, and inadvertently supplies Jessica Kavana Dornbusch’s true-story biopic with an unfortunate parallel: “Reefa,” based on an enraging, heartbreaking real-life event, paints over the colors, creativity and chaos of its true-life tragedy with layers of film-convention formula.
Reefa is a good-looking skateboarder, cocksure about his artistic talent and eager to break into Miami’s tagging scene prior to moving to New York — the erstwhile home of his heroes Basquiat, Warhol and Haring — to attend art school. He jokes around with his sister Offir (Cinthya Carmona), calms the immigration-status fears of his worried mother (Margarita Rosa de Francisco), talks trash with his buddies Felix (Karlos Sanchez) and Thiago (Ezana Alem), and is given to announcing to everyone, with the leaden retroactive pathos that Dornubusch’s screenplay too often deals in, that he’s going to be famous someday.
They all seem to believe him, such is the power of his good-natured, first-generation idealism. He even wins over Frankie (Clara McGregor) a model he meets-cute while body-painting her for a shoot, but whose secret ambition to be a writer is what Reefa really responds to. They fall out and reconcile; Reefa and his Dad have a few father/son spats, but nothing that can’t be mended. Everything is going great … except for the prowling patrol car that occasionally blips its siren, and is driven by pumped, choleric Officer Morales (Ricardo Chavira) — bulging of bicep, form-fitting of uniform, and YMCA of mustache.
Colors, primaries and pastels, pop optimistically in daylight and turn liquid and romantic under the hot pink neon city glow of nighttime. Bright Floridian sunshine lathers DP Mike McGowan’s breezy, classy, commercial camerawork in lens flare. Attractive teens hang out in skate parks on rooftops while Anthony Mirabella’s youthful score buzzes along — the engaging craft Dornbusch brings to bear is undeniable, but it makes the contrast with her paint-the-numbers writing all the more marked.
The dialogue declares that which in a more confident screenplay would be left to the actors to summon without words. On the rare occasion they’re allowed to do so, the performers can shine, particularly Flores, with his charming grin, mop of unruly black hair and aura of truculent innocence, and veteran TV actor Zúñiga, whose fatherly pride and affection speak far louder in his expressions and body language than in the rather histrionic speeches he has to deliver.
But the scripting issues go deeper than the dialogue. There is an eternal problem with this type of film, which tries to create satisfying drama out of senseless tragedy: There is no sense to be made, out of a day that would not have been so very different from any other in Reefa’s young life, had it not been distinguished by being his last. Like in Ryan Coogler’s more dynamic but no less manipulated “Fruitvale Station,” “Reefa” is flummoxed by what to do with a hero whose story is mostly about all the things he never got to do, and so the understandable but fundamentally unreliable decision is made to treat everything as if it were moving toward that fateful night. Dornbusch even starts her film with a flashforward to that August evening as Reefa, Felix and Thiago case Reefa’s latest “canvas” — an abandoned hotel — on which he will paint his “magnum opus,” and be discovered.
No matter that on that night, the real Israel “Reefa” Hernandez was, reportedly, not painting his breakout masterwork on a massive building front, but tagging a McDonald’s. No matter either that there were more cops implicated in the night’s shocking end than just one musclebound, taser-happy racist. Some nips and tucks are necessary for drama, and are licensed by the evident sincerity of Dornbusch’s intentions in highlighting an eight-year-old crime for which the perpetrators have, infuriatingly, never faced justice.
But there’s a difference between simplifying and sanitizing, and “Reefa” is not dextrous enough to walk that line. Complicated, potentially fertile moments occur — Officer Morales’ discussing his own Cuban background, for example, or the fact that Frankie was an emancipated minor at 15 — without being properly developed, just like Reefa’s own thoughts about art and life and dreams are never given space to flourish. “Graffiti is the voice of the people who aren’t heard,” he says at one point, but in “Reefa,” the voice of this young man — the real one, rather than the wholesome outline-sketch we get here — is hard to discern.