The tainted legacies of sexual abuse, addiction and violence hang heavy in the air in Tina Mabry's Mississippi Damned. Clear-eyed and compelling, this emotional feature debut - set in a semi-rural black community in the South of the mid-1980s, and then skipping ahead to the mid-1990s - finds its interconnected characters struggling with daunting issues of stasis and despair.

Mabry, trained at USC, draws from her own experiences and observations growing up in Tupelo, Miss. The film focuses on two kids - Kari (played by Kylee Russell and then Tessa Thompson) and Sammy (Malcolm David Kelley and Malcolm Goodwin) - whose talents and promise are put to the test by the devastating circumstances they find themselves in. He plays basketball, she plays piano - sports and music, their tickets out of town. Perhaps.

Kelley (Walt Lloyd in Lost), Jasmin Burke and Jossie Thacker are among the busy ensemble whose exceptionally fine performances elevate what could have been a pile-it-on melodrama into something deeper and more unsettling.

Mississippi Damned is hard stuff: Kids get sexually abused, husbands cheat on wives, money is stolen or squandered, jobs lost. There is a miscarriage, a killing, cancer. But Mabry's grim scenario is brought into focus by acting that is true, and by characters whose struggles to break the cycle of defeat are imbued with courage and hope.

Mississippi Damned *** (Out of four stars)

Directed by Tina Mabry. With Malcolm Goodwin, Malcolm David Kelley, Kylee Russell, Jossie Harris Thacker and Tessa Thompson.

Running time: 2 hours.

Parent's guide: No MPAA rating (sex, alcohol, drugs, violence, profanity, adult themes)

Playing at: Ritz East tonight at 9:15, and Saturday at 12 p.m.EndText

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://onmoviesonline.blogspot.com.