Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: With Sundance running all week, we look back at some of the festival’s best prizewinners.

Fresh (1994)

When 12-year-old Fresh (Sean Nelson) visits a middle-aged woman in her apartment, she offers milk and cookies, they make small talk about her daughter, and he insists that he’s going to be late for school. The domestic scene distracts from the real reason he’s there: to pick up 20 dime bags of heroin. Fresh, also known by his given name of Michael, is a drug runner, though he doesn’t seem to harbor delusions of kingpin glory. His job keeps him (relatively) safe from the neighborhood dealers, and gives him extra cash that he socks away.

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The movie follows him to another pickup, and then a drop off. Boaz Yakin’s Fresh spends a lot of time with its title character before its story kicks into gear, briefly introducing the kids Fresh knows at school, the dozen more kids he lives with at his aunt’s overcrowded apartment in the projects, his chess-playing father (Samuel L. Jackson), and several drug dealers, including Esteban (Giancarlo Esposito, playing it less cool than Gus Fring). Yakin is stealthily assembling a lot of story pieces, but his transitions are smooth: At one point, Fresh is in a conversation that cuts between one-shots, until a cut to his face jumps him further ahead in his day, into a new conversation. Later, the flicker of subway lights flash back to the face of a drug dealer from a previous scene. Yakin’s confident direction keeps Fresh moving at a clip even before the budding dealer puts into motion a plan to remove himself from the drug scene—and tie up any loose ends.

The obvious metaphor for Fresh’s plan is speed chess, which briefly threatened to become ubiquitous around the time of this movie’s 1994 release. (Searching For Bobby Fischer, also featuring speed-chess played in public parks, came out the previous summer.) Indeed, the movie’s use of chess feels like something of a screenwriter’s construct. But Yakin makes the story clever enough to earn such a hoary comparison, and Jackson gives a smart, understated performance as a man who can’t hold down a traditional job, but can beat anyone with “the clock on him.” The chess metaphor also highlights the calculation of Fresh’s decisions. Several characters in the movie warn him about dealing drugs, but his scheming has at least as much root in revenge as it does in his earnest desire to escape the projects.

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After winning the Filmmaker’s Trophy at Sundance in 1994, Yakin went on to a steady career as a director and screenwriter (and in fact already had a screenwriting career before his festival entry). But Fresh, his first film as a director, remains his best.

Availability: Fresh is available on DVD, which can be obtained from Netflix or your local video store/library, and to rent or purchase from the major digital services. It’s also currently streaming on Netflix.

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