Set in Chicago in the summer of 1978 and featuring a credits-to-credits soundtrack of '70s songs, the roller-skating comedy Roll Bounce could almost pass for a product of the era it depicts if it weren't for all the contemporary faces. It also works a formula that's at least three decades old—following star Bow Wow and friends as they train all summer long for a big roller-skating competition—but familiarity can be a virtue, especially when it takes a back seat to winning characters, heartfelt emotions, and kick-ass roller-skating sequences that play out in split-screen to the accompaniment of Sister Sledge's "He's The Greatest Dancer."
Screenwriter Norman Vance Jr. and director Malcolm D. Lee (Undercover Brother) wrap their film in affection for its time, but they're after more than nostalgia. Sure, star Bow Wow has a Star Wars poster on his wall and an Atari in the living room, but he's got real worries, too. When the local roller rink closes, he and his friends, already savvy to the ways of urban life, lament that it will inevitably be replaced with a gun shop or a chicken stand—hopefully the latter. Much worse, he's still coping with the loss of his mother and not adjusting well to his dad's demands that he help out more around the house now that she's gone. Meanwhile, the dad (Chi McBride) struggles with unemployment and a job market that, quietly, seems to prefer not to hire black engineers when there are white candidates around.
Roll Bounce smartly recognizes that winning a big roller-skating contest won't solve any of this. It also recognizes that such an achievement can still mean a lot, particularly to a teenage kid without a whole lot else going his way. Taking the bus to a lush, integrated north-side rink with gawky new neighbor Jurnee Smollett in tow, Bow Wow and his friends enter a new world where, in spite of the vanilla-ing influence of Bee Gees music, the competition is fiercer than anything they'd encountered before. A Jimi Hendrix-like hipster (Nick Cannon, in a funny supporting role) dispenses love advice over the skate-rental desk, an intimidating superstar named Sweetness (Wesley Jonathan, exuding a Prince-like mystique) rules the rink, and respect has to be earned the hard way.
In short, it's a sneak preview of adulthood, and Roll Bounce nicely balances its pressures with the lazy pleasures of childhood (and a fair amount of "your mama" jokes). The cast creates an easygoing atmosphere, making it all the more effective when real drama invades their lives, particularly in Bow Wow's scenes with McBride, whose performance mixes fatherly devotion with frayed nerves. Behind the camera, Lee shows a steady hand and saves his best tricks for the big finale, which generates a lot of excitement out of the collision of disco music and some truly impressive skating. Lee finds exciting ways to stage the action, but he sells it with what comes before. Even if the film's characters were obsessed with corn-husking, he'd still have made a lively, touching film as irresistible as the beat to "Le Freak."