THE STORY – An All-American football player’s dreams to play in the NFL are halted when he is falsely accused of rape and sent to prison.
THE CAST – Aldis Hodge, Greg Kinnear & Gino Vento
THE TEAM – Tom Shadyac (Director) & Doug Atchison (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 100 Minutes
By Will Mavity
Comedy veteran Tom Shadyac (“Bruce Almighty” & “Ace Ventura”), shifts his focus to social activism, helming a film about Brian Banks, promising young football player, who after falsely being imprisoned for rape, spends years fighting to prove his innocence and reclaim his life. Although Shadyac tries his best, his inexperience helming dramatic material is evident, and the unfortunate timing of the film’s release cannot be ignored.
As much as one might like to evaluate a film in a vacuum based entirely on its merits alone, devoid of societal ramifications, the circumstances surrounding Tom Shadyac’s “Brian Banks” are too significant to ignore. Although the film began filming last October, just as the wheels of the #MeToo movement were beginning to spin, it is now being released during a time when allegations of sexual misconduct are commonplace. More importantly, its Los Angeles Film Festival premiere lands during the same week Supreme Court Nominee Brett Kavanaugh is arguing that the women who have accused him of sexual assault are fabricating the truth. And so, we have to ask: is the story of a man who was falsely accused of rape and sent to prison for six years really the story that needs to be told right now? The film adamantly argues that the titular Brian Banks was wronged and that his accuser lied. And while, arguably, the film is making a broader statement about people-of-color being imprisoned for crimes they did not commit, this particular story and the statement it makes by extension about the validity of sexual assault accusations have to be considered. Just as the immediate aftermath of WWII would not have been the ideal time for a remake of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant Of Venice,” perhaps 2018 is not the ideal time for this kind of film.
As for the film’s own merits, Shadyac’s direction is pedestrian. His bland shot, reverse shot camerawork might not be an issue in a film like “Ace Ventura” where Jim Carrey’s nimble physical comedy provides enough energy to keep the proceedings visually engaging. The stoic tone Shadyac adopts here obviously leaves no room for Carrey-like antics. In fact, there is little humor at all to be found. Attempts at visual symbolism are beyond heavy-handed. There is one sequence where Brian is meant to have a revelation, and the sun rises, peeks through the window, blasting him in the face with sunlight. He literally “sees the light.” Even details like the film’s onscreen text feel amateurish in their font choices.
Aldis Hodge (“Straight Outta Compton”) and Greg Kinnear (“Little Miss Sunshine”) work hard to make their characters likable. Both get their “Oscar bait” moments of tearful one-shot monologues and land them admirably. Hodge was overshadowed by co-star Jason Mitchell in Compton, but his performance here makes it clear that he is an immense talent in the making. His Brian Banks is smart, dedicated, and emotionally raw. Kinnear’s defense attorney hero is earnest and charming. Unfortunately, Shadyac and screenwriter Doug Atchison (“Akeelah and the Bee”) don’t allow the film’s female characters to have similar meaty material to work with. Banks’ love interest, Karina, played by Melanie Liburd (“This Is Us”) briefly gets to provide a voice on the female perspective on sexual assault but is largely relegated to the sidelines thereafter. Banks’ supportive mother and a female attorney in Kinnear’s office come and go as cheerleaders in the fight for justice, but the focus here is very much on the men. It is notable, that a film centered around sexual assault and people of color is written and directed by white men. A film with this subject matter could have used additional voices.
The film’s narrative ebbs and flows in just how compelling it is. As it nears its courtroom climax, it actually manages to grab you. And the ultimate emotional payoff (largely aided by Hodge’s acting) works. Shadyac is well-intentioned here. And he should be applauded for branching out and tackling serious subject matter, the situation’s nuances into an easily digestible narrative, but the film’s timing and his simplistic approach isn’t what the material needs right now.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – Strong lead performances.
THE BAD – Poor timing for a film with this subject matter. Shadyac’s direction is pedestrian.