Dir. Lance Hammer
This was Roger Ebert’s number one film of 2008. It’s a very good film, but I’m not sure it warrants that choice. Before I describe the plot, I must say that the film is not about plot or story. Imo, the extent to which you like this film depends heavily on finding a meaningful interpretation for the film. (There is one—and makes the film a very good, imo.)
The film follows three black characters: Lawrence, a man who has just experienced a tragic loss; Marlee, a struggling single-parent mom and her son, James, who is headed down the wrong path. While there’s not much to the story, the director does a good job of gradually revealing details that keep the audience guessing and curious at the same time. Often the scenes raise questions that you want answered. For example, one of the first scenes is of a man peering into a dark room, and we see a silouette of a silent man. The man peering in asks to come in, but the silent silouette says nothing. The man in the shadows could be dangerous or just sad. On the other hand, I can understand if some viewers find this approach too slow and boring.
The next section contains my interpretation of the film.
There’s a plot point in the film involving James crossing a drug gang. Add to that Lawrence’s calm and even caring reaction to James’ repeated robberies of him, and I wondered if the film would end with Lawrence saving James in a dramatic confrontation with the gang—which would be a more conventional resolution. But because that didn’t happen, I suspected the film was going for something else, possibly more profound.
Indeed, I believe the film has a profound message about the needs of African-American families, in general, and young African-American males, specifically.
I don’t care for “message movies,” particularly where the message is banal, and while the film’s point is not very revelatory, the quiet way it makes this point, through a gradual unfolding of the characters and their lives, makes the film noteworthy and powerful. For example, the film begins with the characters’ lives in disarray: Marlee, the young mother, is losing her son to the streets and losing her job only makes matters worse; Lawrence losing his twin brother (Marlee’s lover and James’ biological father) brings him to the point of despair and even suicide.
But then the characters begin to turn their lives around. Marlee gets an opportunity to run a store—with the flexibility and support (including childcare provided by Lawrence) to raise James. Lawrence moves out of his depression to help both Marlee and James, and the way Hammer shows this—versus explaining—is really crucial. One scene stands out: After Lawrence takes out his gun (probably to kill himself), he realizes that James has taken his bullets, and he rushes out to find James because he thinks James has a gun. When James shows where he threw the bullets away and that there is no gun, Marlee reacts with distress, but Lawrence doesn’t show much emotion. However, we can infer several things: there is relief that James didn’t have a gun and that both James and Marlee realize the precariousness of James’ life.
This is the reason Lawrence gets into the care with Marlee and James a little later—despite his hurt feelings caused by Marlee’s rejection. This signifies that Lawrence has decided to put James’ interests ahead of his own; Lawerence is being a real man. This is the final shot of the film, and it makes a powerful statement—all the more so, precisely because of the minimal dialogue and lack of overt drama. Instead, the filmmakers rely on the audience to infer and piece together the significance of the scenes—as a result the “message” and meaning exist in the audiences’ imagination. This is what gives the film its power.
So how do I interpret the ending and the film as a whole? For me, the film suggests the necessary elements for stability in the African-American family (or perhaps any family). Single-mothers need economic opportunity and quality childcare/education for their children. That is their “ballast.” For African-American men, the film may not identify the keys to their stability, but it does strongly imply the importance of that whatever put ting the needs of African-American children, specifically young boys, ahead of themselves. Perhaps, this provide the “weight” and meaning that will give them stability. In any event, it must be done. The presence and support of an adult male and mother with the necessary support are the necessary ingredients for boys like James to have a chance. That seems to be one of the stronger points of the film.
One last word to some viewers who will undoubtedly call the film boring or pointless. The spare story and lack of overt drama not only allows the audience to construct the meaning and “message” in their minds, but it allows for a richer interpretation for the film, which wouldn’t occur if the filmmaker was more didactic. Moreover, explicit points made by directors can come across as heavy-handed and awkward, and these simple scenes avoid that pitfall. In this way, the film does remind me of Antonioni, specifically L’Avventura. The compositions and camera are not on the same level (although the shot of the Lawerence’s house and Marlee’s reminded me of the scene on the island when the characters are looking for the missing lady), but in both the films the characters seem to represent more general types, and the both films end in a strong positive note.