Also known as Johnny Tough, this amateurish but well-meaning melodrama offers an adolescent riff of blaxploitation. Told from a kids’-eye view, the picture depicts obstacles that a young African-American boy named Johnny faces while trying to find himself. Johnny fights constantly with his mother, who is more interested in pursuing a career as an actress than she is in raising her son. Johnny vacillates between affection and antagonism with regard to his stepfather, who likes being a role model when things are smooth but resents the inconvenience when things are not. Johnny clashes frequently with his stern schoolteacher, an uptight white dude who seems to regard his mostly black students as animals who need to be herded from one place to the next. Johnny even gets into hassles with other kids, particularly during a harrowing early scene in which bullies stop just short of lynching Johnny’s best friend. In some ways, cowriter/director Horace Jackson makes interesting points by depicting Johnny as the product of a comfortable home rather than an impoverished ghetto; the gist is that Johnny experiences generic teen troubles in addition to difficulties stemming specifically from race.
Yet Jackson’s approach is clumsy, heavy-handed, and unfocused. The teacher is a one-note villain. The mother is absurdly self-absorbed except for fleeting (and unconvincing) moments of compassion. The stepfather makes even less sense, because he’s stalwart in one scene, vile in the next. Worst of all is the presentation of the main character. Johnny has reason to be angry, what with his parents quarreling all the time and his teacher singling Johnny out for discipline, but Jackson fails to imbue Johnny with distinctive gifts or even noteworthy resilience. Attempting to tell a story about an average kid whose journey is a microcosm for bigger issues is all well and good, but Johnny comes across as too much of a cipher to command attention—a problem exacerbated by actor Dion Gossett’s forgettable screen persona. Still, Jackson has good intentions, even though his storytelling instincts are weak. In particular, Jackson nearly obliterates the credibility of the whole enterprise with a ridiculous ending that reeks of creative desperation.