STUDIO: Peace Arch Home Entertainment
RUNNING TIME: 87 minutes
- Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign Outreach
- Theatrical Trailer
Interwoven Urban Stories Ensemble Film #223428. Sort of.
Starring Rosario Dawson, Paul Dano, Naomie Harris, Lou Taylor Pucci. Written and directed by Mark Webber.
The film presents a mostly breezy, loosely interconnected series of vignettes detailing life in and around North Philadelphia. There’s the two young pothead artists in a tumultuous relationship. The married couple trying to raise money to open their own health store. An aspiring actor who takes jobs playing characters at kids’ birthday parties to make ends meet. A scrawny kid who aspires to become the world’s strongest man. And so on. Characters meet, stories intersect, people overcome adversity. You know the drill.
Although it’s roughly in the same subgenre (tapestries of urban life?), Explicit Ills is a different beast from its more explosive, dramatic (or in the case of Crash, awful) brethren like Do The Right Thing, Magnolia, and Crash. It’s a film with a light touch, about everyday life and the little obstacles people face. There are some Big Dramatic Events, and an ending that reveals a desire to inspire social change, but it’s generally more interested in life’s little moments. The lengths a teenage guy goes to impress a girl, the difficulty an honest mom has telling her kid not to do drugs when she herself has smoked pot, a precocious little kid deciding to kill a school bully with kindness, etc. That all probably sounds gratingly twee, but thankfully the film doesn’t play up the quirk factor too much. It lets things play out pretty naturally. As such, it’s not the most attention-grabbing film, but an engaging enough one, often amusing and with a decidedly compassionate attitude towards its characters.
**I move away from the mic to breathe in
First time director Mark Webber acquits himself fairly well. The film looks good, and he manages to pull off some Spike Lee-esque stylistic flourishes (Lee seems to be the main visual influence here) without being distracting or tripping over himself to do so. The cast is uniformly solid in an un-showy way that works for the film’s low-key approach but doesn’t exactly grab the viewer. Rosario Dawson has to play a few bigger emotional moments, and while her performance borders on over the top it stops short of anything embarrassing. Paul Dano is understated, thankfully steering clear of the grating quirkiness of films like Gigantic. Naomie Harris is fine but doesn’t have much to do. Lou Taylor Pucci plays one of the least edgy drug addicts in the history of film. The child actors are all fine. In other words, there’s nothing that sticks out as either awful or great. Everything is right down the middle.
Jesus christ, what DIDN’T you eat?
If I had to sum up Explicit Ills with a single word, it would be pleasant; that’s certainly not a bad thing, but for a film with some heavier sociopolitical ideas in mind it’s sort of damning with faint praise. Trying to shine a light on issues like poverty and health care reform is admirable, and I have no doubt that the filmmakers’ interest in social justice is genuine, but the generally lightweight, genial tone of the film can’t really support those lofty aspirations. Subsequently the message ends up feeling tacked on, and the film might have been better served by either playing that aspect down and letting it exist simply as a little slice of urban life, or by upping the stakes and the drama to make the audience really feel the message in a more visceral way. The film also cheats a bit by letting the big political message oriented ending stand in as a unification and resolution to all the film’s narrative and character threads, some of which never intersect organically and/or simply fizzle out.
Forgot to mention, the film is set during the 80s Ninja craze. Kind of an odd, distracting choice, but anything to get Sho Kosugi work…
On the other hand, maybe there’s something to be said for not falling into the same trap of heavy-handedness as the likes of Crash, and aspirations of increasing social consciousness aside it is, as I’ve said, a pleasant enough series of vignettes. And while the stakes are perhaps too low throughout most of the running time, it is refreshing to see a movie about inner city life that isn’t so reliant on the usual clichés. The problems these characters face are mostly mundane and a little quirky. There has to be some happy medium between “gritty urban realism!” and “indie trifle!” Explicit Ills can’t quite find it but I give it props for looking.
The sole special feature, aside from the film’s trailer, is an overview of an organization called the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign, the core of what the movie is about (or wants to be about). This is presented simply as a few pages of on screen text to scroll through, which list the Campaign’s mission statement, actions, and ways to get involved. Again, this is admirable, but in keeping with the film itself, not exactly the most engaging or rousing way to present a message.
Anakin. That’s all I’m gonna say.