As a portrait of perfect grief, LILA & EVE is unmatched. Blessed with a performance by Viola Davis as Lila, this is one of the best ever filmed. She is fierce, edgy, and heartbreaking as a single mother in a harrowing study of the limits of sanity in the face of unutterable tragedy. Unlike the more testosterone-driven revenge fantasies of the Charles Bronson ilk, this one dares to be more complex, and offers no absolution in the baptism of blood.
The tragedy is the accidental death of a kid at the wrong place at the wrong time. The kid is Stephon (Aml Ameen) Lila’s beloved elder son. Unable to cope with what has happened, Lila is floating through a haze of grief and sedatives, unable to face life without Stephon, unable to be a mother to younger son Justin (Ron Caldwell), or continue the tentative courtship with a sensitive neighbor (Julius Tennon). she finds unexpected solace, a modicum at least, at a support group for the mothers of murdered children. The advice to take up a hobby to help cope takes an ironic turn when she meets Eve (Jennifer Lopez in a fine performance), the brassy, tough-talking mother of a murdered daughter who reluctantly agrees to be Lila’s sponsor. As much as Lila need to talk about what happened, to sort out her feelings, there is a part of her that also desperately needs Eve’s sarcasm as an astringent tonic to the treacle of the support group. When Lila sees one of the members take leave of reality, something she is assured happens from time to time but is to be expected, she becomes all the more certain that Eve’s approach to grief counseling is the more effective method of healing.
Eve does bring Lila back to life, but in one of the film’s many deftly played ironies, it is by taking lives, specifically those of the people responsible for Stephon’s death. The two play detective when the police assigned to the case (Shea Wigham and Andre Royo as a clever odd couple) are unable or unwilling to find Stephon’s killer, and leave a string of corpses, some unintended, some not, as they doggedly follow the clues from the street to the penthouse of the illegal drug business in Atlanta.
Davis never lets us forget the essential humanity of her character. When she crashes the club scene to find the next clue, there is something uplifting for us about seeing Lila put on makeup and embrace at least the simulacrum of joy in dancing with Eve while stalking their prey. Just as there is something horrifying in seeing a decent woman pushed into spilling blood. Yet even in those moments, Lila’s humanity and vulnerability are present, fighting to dominance even as Lila’s gun is still smoking.
LILA & EVE is a revenge fantasy with all the usual trappings to be sure, but that’s where the comparison ends. Justice is an equal element, and that proves to be as elusive as the peace of mind Lila lost when her son was taken from her. In this it becomes less a fantasy than a cautionary tale about what we lose when so much is taken from us that can never be recovered.