By OnMilwaukee Staff Writers   Published Jun 27, 2001 at 1:38 AM

After the big budget, action packed "Shaft" remake that he directed last year, John Singleton returns to his roots, so to speak, with "Baby Boy." Referred to as a "companion piece" to his 1991 breakthrough "Boyz 'N the Hood," it focuses on the everyday struggles of ordinary people in Los Angeles.

R&B singer Tyrese stars as Jody, a young man living with his mother Juanita (Adrienne-Joi Johnson). He has two young children by two different women, doesn't have a job and is exceptionally lazy. All he does is leech off people, watch TV and play video games.

But all that is about to change and Jody is going to have to take some responsibility for himself and his actions and learn how to be a man, whether he likes it or not.

The biggest disruption to Jody's life is Melvin (Ving Rhames), his mother's new boyfriend. He is protective of his mother and doesn't like Melvin. Mostly, though, he is worried that his mom is going to kick him out of the house and have Melvin move in.

Melvin sees a lot of himself as a young man in Jody and wants to offer him advice and guide him. He was a violent youth and spent ten years in prison, and he doesn't want that to happen to Jody.

Jody also receives pressure from Yvette, the mother of his son. Though he still sleeps with the mother of his other child, Jody practically lives with Yvette and is in a serious relationship with her. She wants him to grow up, stop fooling around on her and start a family with her and their son.

Essentially, "Baby Boy" is a coming of age tale, albeit one that isn't seen very often. Seldom are African Americans portrayed as simple, decent people just trying to be happy and lead a good life like everyone else. This makes the film a welcome breath of fresh air.

Though it's often funny, Singleton, who also wrote the screenplay, clearly has a lot on his mind. It's a serious movie that deals with a lot of serious issues. Maturity, honesty, responsibility and hard work are all heavily touched on.

Singleton's familiarity with the environment is an added bonus. The characters are all carefully drawn and well developed. He understands them and their life, allowing the viewer to do so as well.

The entire cast is solid, but Tyrese and Rhames do the best work. The latter is good in whatever he does, so that comes as no surprise. It's the former that is the real find here. His performance is natural and entirely believable. You can see the man underneath the boy and the potential he has. Jody is a good guy, just a selfish and lazy one. He needs someone to show him the way.

There is a hint of familiarity in "Baby Boy," and at two hours and ten minutes, it's a bit overlong. But overall it's a powerful and intelligent film. It stands out in a summer where everything has been loud and obnoxious. This is a movie that actually earns your money.

Grade: A-

"Baby Boy" starts Wed., June 27 at theaters everywhere.