It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
"Slam" is a fable disguised as a slice of life, and cobbled together out of too many pieces that don't fit smoothly together. It's moving, but not as effective as it could have been. Inspired in part by the documentary "SlamNation," it's the story of Ray, a Washington, D.C., prisoner whose life is transformed by poetry. And it also provides a glimpse of the world of competitive poetry slams, although Ray's story and the slam material don't seem to occupy the same level of intensity. Some scenes play like drama, others feel like they were grabbed documentary-style.
The movie stars Saul Williams, an effective actor, as Raymond Joshua, a young black man who is stopped by police who find four ounces of marijuana. He's innocent, he says, but he's advised by his public defender to cop a plea. That way he could get two to three years instead of up to ten. We can see he's stuck on the conveyor belt to prison, and a stern judge (played by former Washington mayor Marion Berry) gives him a weary lecture.
In prison, Ray's life is changed when he starts writing poetry, and recites it one day in the prison yard, where the other inmates are (somewhat unconvincingly) transfixed. He attends a prison writing class, where Lauren, the teacher (Sonja Sohn) announces it's her last day: "They've cut this program." She is impressed by his writing and encourages him, and after he gets back on the street he finds her again, and enters her world of poetry slams. At one of them, she introduces him from the stage, and his poem is well-received.
It's at about this point that the film loses its focus. Ray's arrest, conviction and imprisonment are all filmed with realism. But the romance with Lauren seems out of another movie, and the scenes at poetry slams are awkwardly integrated: Either they weren't staged for this film, or the assistant director didn't have his extras under control.