As far as directional debuts go, you could do a lot worse. What you get here is a fairly generic coming of age story with a crime undertones as added flavor, but what makes the movie truly good is the way De Niro is able to make the relatively simple story feel very up close and personal, so that you become emotionally invested in the main character’s development from a naive kid to an adult man. It very smoothly sucks you in and then keeps you interested with a combination of skillful use of musical cues and good cinematography. The conflicting father figures provides a very rich and fertile ground to tell a story and the complexity and impact that has on Calogero, or C. as he’s also called, is very well explored and utilized throughout the movie.
De Niro doesn’t quite manage to hold on to the reins right to the end. The story inevitably loses some traction once we skip several years to the future, to the point where Calogero is almost grown up, because the focus now turns to the increasing racial tensions between Calogero’s neighborhood and the nearby black community, and C.’s life becomes even more complicated when he falls in love with a black girl. This new focus on the social revolution of the time period is interesting addition to the plot and provides a nice climax in the form of C.’s racist childhood friends when the racial tension flares to violence, but De Niro doesn’t completely manage to integrate this element to his overall tale of two conflicting father figures that influence Calogero’s life in a satisfying manner. While Sonny does give C. dating tips and tells him to not care what others think if he truly likes the colored girl and C.’s own biological father is more conservative and dismisses such notions as interracial dating, the race issue isn’t explored as much as it could have and the conflict itself between the two set of opinions when it comes to dating a black girl doesn’t have the same weight to it anymore, as it used to when Calogero’s was younger and his father and Sonny’s opinions were presented to have much more gravitas. This probably could have been fixed with some retooling of the script, but as it stands now, it’s a slight slip up in the handling of the story that ends up making the movie merely good, rather than great.
Still, De Niro managed to do a very impressive job with this directorial debut of his, and it’s a pity that the only other movie he has directed since has been the Good Shepherd, which was also pretty good but not great movie. De Niro clearly has talent for directing and it would still be interesting to see that talent to come full bloom.