`Zebrahead' and `In the Soup' Are Smart, Small Films

AUTUMN is a major season for film festivals, and such festivals are a major launching pad for movies by little-known filmmakers. That's one reason why the cool-weather months often bring a spate of small-scale pictures by directors without lengthy track records, who rely on festival word-of-mouth rather than high-powered advertising to spread the news of their achievements. Two such movies, "Zebrahead" and "In the Soup," are now arriving in theaters after showing at the New York filmfest and similar venu es.

The odd title of `Zebrahead' makes more sense when you realize the movie is about race relations between blacks and whites. Set on the outskirts of Detroit, the story focuses on Zack, a likable Jewish boy who admires the talk, the walk, the music, and the whole culture of the African-American youngsters who go to his high school.

Despite undercurrents of racial tension in the environment, things go smoothly for this "zebrahead" until he falls in love with Nikki, a new girl in town who's not only African-American but also the cousin of his best friend. Reactions to the affair take many forms, and some are dangerously negative. Adding further complication is the jealousy of a disturbed black classmate, whose emotions swing out of control and bring about the movie's violent climax.

The picture was written and directed by newcomer Anthony Drazan for executive producer Oliver Stone, whose name also appears on "South Central," another current film that deals (less successfully) with urban issues and race. The filmmaking in "Zebrahead" is not particularly clever or creative, but there are smart performances by Michael Rapaport as Zack and N'Bushe Wright as Nikki, and Ray Sharkey is brashly amusing as the protagonist's woman-chasing father.

Most important, the film is sensitive in its approach to racial tension - taking care to avoid both simplistic optimism and melodramatic gloominess, and closing its story on a note of intelligently conceived ambiguity. "Zebrahead" is a responsible movie, if not a very exciting one.

`In the Soup,' a dark and quirky comedy directed by Alexandre Rockwell, sets off a more frenetic batch of fireworks. The title refers not to gastronomy but to the movie business. One of the heroes is an aspiring filmmaker who's desperate for money to finance his dream project. The other hero - if that's the word - is a drug-dealing criminal who's looking for someplace legitimate to invest his money.

The plot of "In the Soup" is fast, furious, and extremely silly - at least until the end, when it takes a somber twist. What makes the movie worth watching is the exuberant performance of Seymour Cassell, who's remarkably sharp and energetic as the would-be producer who sets the story in motion. The picture would be more memorable if Mr. Cassell's acting were not its only substantial asset. But then, many films have a lot less going for them, and it's nice to see Cassell having such fun with the performi ng skills he's been developing for years. There's no other actor like him, and his presence makes "In the Soup" a hard picture to shake off.

* "Zebrahead" is rated * for strong language; it also includes some sexual activity and scenes of emotional tension. "In the Soup" is rated R. It contains sex and drug activity and vulgar language.

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