We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

“Life is a traffic jam” runs the slogan for this appealing debut. It’s also the refrain of an icy spoken-word bebop number that ushers out the film, the three main characters, all shoulderblades and dark glasses, testifying to the wisdom of this grad-school revelation onstage at a dingy club. It isn’t quite true, though, and the gap between the statement’s broad speculation and the confines of its reality is where Gridlock’d finds humor as well as hopelessness.

Directed and written by actor Vondie Curtis Hall with an eye for the unusual but never the showy, this brief, smart character exercise follows 24 hours in the lives of two musicians as they attempt to crawl out of the underground world of addiction and into sunny mainstream programs designed to help people like them. What they find is circular bureaucracy—endless forms, charts, and questionnaires, relocated or defunded offices, vengeful, listless, or frustrated personnel, a gridlock of red tape and good intentions that leaves them sick, shaken, and wanting out of the system more than ever. Plainly, their life is a traffic jam.

In a cheap apartment in Detroit, the members of a musical trio—they play a kind of spavined jazz that affects hopelessness as a measure of cool—party in the New Year. Stretch (Tim Roth) is talking rot, as usual, annoying his best friend Spoon (Tupac Shakur), while the singer and riveting focal point, Cookie (Australian actress Thandie Newton), naps soundlessly. Soon, it’s discovered that she has overdosed on her first foray with white powder (presumably heroin, or possibly cocaine; it’s never identified), which the boys have been cavalierly shooting up for so long it isn’t fun anymore. They douse her in the tub, drag her to a phone booth, try repeatedly to hail a cab that will stop for two men propping up an apparently lifeless female, and eventually haul her to the hospital themselves. Once there, they get a diluted preview of the trials to come—the forms, the waiting, the indifference of people in charge.

Throughout the film, flashbacks show us what life was like when Cookie was sentient—glamorous, unpredictable, and sensual. Hall tracks time using the awkward method of whiteouts that melt into negative images that melt into scenes whenever Spoon and Stretch think about their friend. Gridlock’d bounces between past and present only to show us how Cookie landed in the hospital (gift of a record exec) and to prove that they really are musicians even though they don’t practice or talk about music. The split-time tricks aren’t necessary, but Newton is a glorious creature, with her square baby’s face and dizzy English accent.

While Cookie languishes, Spoon gets a brainstorm: Let’s kick, he tells Stretch, and then this sort of thing won’t happen anymore. Stretch is dubious—he really likes his drugs—but finally agrees; he’d rather be dopeless than lose his pal to distancing sobriety. “New Year and all,” they keep telling each other. They’ll check themselves into rehab, and by the time Cookie’s out of danger, they’ll all be clean and happy.

The next 24 hours find them stumbling from one scratched glass window to another and being informed of all manner of disheartening details: You need a Medicaid card to enter rehab; you need to be on welfare to get a Medicaid card; you can get an emergency Medicaid card, except the office has moved and the people in the old building tell you to go back to the office that sent you there in the first place, and even then they’ll only give out emergency cards to people who test HIV-positive. Getting the HIV test—results in 10 days, sirs—ends up being the only thing Spoon and Stretch accomplish the whole day. It’s enough to make you turn to drugs, which they do.

A visit to their dealer and his lovely, somnambulent girlfriend proves inauspicious, as their dope happens to be supplied by a very mean top man (Hall), license plate “D REPER,” who has been gunning for Stretch since he sold D-Reper a camcorder box full of bricks and then insulted his mama. Stretch’s misapprehension that he’s black gets him into frequent trouble, to Spoon’s vast embarrassment. The dealer pulls a gun on him when Stretch (idly, he thinks) calls him “nigger,” and D-Reper doesn’t let the mama remark pass unchallenged.

The hapless addicts show up for a fix at the wrong time, D-Reper having lived up to his name by bloodily gathering in both dealer and girlfriend for an unpaid debt; Stretch nabs a bag of goods and he and Spoon both leave fingerprints everywhere. The twofold wrongful-accusation subplot—D-Reper wants his baggie back; the cops want the boys for murder—provides a little excitement to contrast with the stultifying boredom of waiting, walking, and being sent to the wrong window.

Roth is perfect for this unsurprising role; he’s a dweeby little white guy who found a way to be cool by suppressing his own feelings of alienation from big-boned, rock ‘n’ roll, nonjunkie culture and identifying with others’ more apparent outsider characteristics. (He’s still dweeby; Roth affects an underbite that gives Stretch a tight cartoon grin.) But it is the late Tupac Shakur who is truly revelatory here; his is a vibrant, natural screen presence, handsome, real, and unselfconscious. His easy humor provides the ballast for the funniest stabbing scene ever committed to film.

It’s as depressing to witness Shakur’s powerful talent, knowing that it is so scantly documented compared with his potential, as it is tempting to make morbid prophecies from the few lines of dialogue meant to telegraph Spoon’s weariness. As writer and director, Hall wasn’t predicting the future, merely telling a story. And that story has back-looping threads of ironic misery enough. While the boys sit dejectedly in an emergency room waiting for treatment, ending their journey where they began it, somewhere on another floor Cookie blinks, rips out her breathing tube, lights a cigarette and makes for the pay phone. She coos advice to the answering machine, telling the guys that they might want to think about kicking. Sign up for rehab tomorrow, “New Year and all.”CP