BRIAN BANKS is an earnest film that hits all the necessary and expected plot points as it makes its cogent indictment of the criminal justice system. It never becomes a screed, though the based-on-a-true story of 16-year-old who ended up serving time for a rape he didn’t commit certainly has all the elements to support one. Instead, it focuses on Banks’ spiritual journey that allowed him to never lose hope that he might one day get his life back, even when it seemed most impossible.
Banks, played with sweetness and intensity by Aldis Hodge, was a varsity football player scouted by USC when one unfortunate decision sent him to prison. Taking a plea on advice of well-intentioned but misguided counsel, he encountered a mentor that changed his perspective about the meaning of prison. That it’s Morgan Freeman as the mentor telling him that he can free his mind even as his body is incarcerated lends the authority of the Almighty to the pronouncements, and the necessary credibility that a bitter kid could, in fact, be turned away from the darkness and into the light. In case we don’t get that last point, Banks’ spiritual breakthrough is accompanied by a shaft of sunlight piercing his solitary confinement.
Yes, it’s heavy-handed. And, further yes, there is a checklist that the story goes through telling its tale of redemption. Banks convincing Justin Brooks (Greg Kinnear) of the California Innocence Project to take his case. The two bonding over bad jokes and shared vision. The perky law students (Tiffany Dupont, Mystie Smith) who take Banks’ case to heart and do the investigation that police never bothered to pursue. The long-suffering mother (Sherri Shepherd) given excruciating lines of greeting-card dialogue to intone, though all credit to Shepard that she finds the truth of the feelings behind them. The new girlfriend who quickly sees past the false charges and is enchanted by the man himself. To balance the premise of a girl falsely crying rape, there is a reference to an actual rape victim whose accusations were dismissed by authorities.
Screenwriter Doug Atchison uses flashbacks to fill in the story of what happened as the action in the present is complicated by a parole officer (Dorian Missick) inured to anything his charges tell him, and the accuser (Xosha Roquemore) who claims that she has matured from the 15-year-old afraid that her mother would find out that she was, as she puts it, getting with boys. It’s an effective narrative device. Direction by Tom Shadyac, an alum of Jim Carrey movies who dropped out for a while on his own spiritual quest, is less effective, using a stolid approach with a few flashy camera moves that dutifully record the action while not necessarily elevating it.
It’s left to Hodge to do the elevating. His is an emotional immediacy without a trace of calculation involved. There is also an emotional openness that is irresistible, and that makes the setbacks heartbreaking and the triumphs, no matter how small exhilarating. He creates a character believably full of hope in situations where little or none appears to the rest of us.
It’s that performance that makes BRIAN BANKS the film its makers intended it to be: a feel-good film about a broken system. And this is also its failing. Dropping facts about plea bargains and the obstacles to overturning judgements even in the face of incontrovertible evidence, it lays out what’s wrong with great precision, salutes the warriors who take on the struggle, but fails to become a rallying cry for the Brian Banks’ out there without the wherewithal to refuse to take no for an answer. As depicted in the film’s most uncomfortable moment, the tearful plea by a convicted African-American begging an affluent white lawyer to keep trying to exonerate him. Well meaning, no doubt, as a way of showing how Banks restored that lawyer’s idealism, and possibly even accurate historically, but politically unsettling if only for the bald depiction of the real power structure at work. It’s the closest BRIAN BANKS comes to crossing into a film with as much substance as it has heart.