Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
A dumb title and Justin Timberlake may sound like two good reasons to avoid Alpha Dog, another apparent yawn about bitches, drugs, and wannabe thugs. Yet writer-director Nick Cassavetes pushes Mr. SexyBack and the rest of his young cast to deliver fine, layered performances in a script that transcends what-up-yo clichés. Alpha Dog is based on the true story of Jesse James Hollywood, a murder suspect who became one of the youngest persons on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list and had eluded authorities right up until 2005, when the movie went into postproduction. (Hollywood unsuccessfully attempted to block the film’s release.) Hollywood’s film persona is Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch), a midlevel drug dealer who’s supplied by his father (Bruce Willis) and enjoys a hedonistic lifestyle with friends and hangers-on in suburban Los Angeles. The group, including the goofy Frankie (Timberlake), devoted Elvis (Shawn Hatosy), and more reluctant Tiko (Fernando Vargas), cracks a few skulls when necessary, but they get themselves into deep shit when they impulsively kidnap 15-year-old Zack (Anton Yelchin). Zack’s the half-brother of Jake (Ben Foster), a tweaker who owes Johnny about a thousand bucks. Frankie and company think the hostage thing is just a lark, especially when Zack, having been coddled by his mom (Sharon Stone), starts having a great time hanging out with everybody. Johnny starts getting nervous, though, and one call to his lawyer confirms the gravity of the situation. Cassavetes, who told the Los Angeles Times that his script is 95 percent accurate, adds a car-crash element by noting not only the dates and times of certain scenes but by pausing action to label every future witness as the story unfolds. He goes a bit too far with the gimmickry, using techniques such as split screens and hypercolorization that distract from instead of amping the drama. But the actors are riveting anyway, asking that the characters be seen as likable kids instead of felons. Timberlake is impressively natural in his biggest role to date; Hirsch, as always, is magnetic as the bad boy who shows hints of discomfort with his lifestyle; and Foster is flat-out terrific playing the bugged-out Jake, often looking like he’s going to bust out of his skin when, say, telling his boss that he’s “totally. Fucking. Straight!” Nick, you’re officially forgiven for The Notebook.