An old filmmaking adage teaches us that different movies succeed for different reasons. While one film might win you with its visual style and directorial sensibility, another might lack technical pizzazz but succeed thanks to a compelling story and a couple of solid performances.
Such is the case for Brian Banks, which has little cinematic flair, a heavy-handed score, a saccharine under-taste and even some cringeworthy dialogue, but is effective for the simplest reason: You care about the main character.
Based on the real story of Brian Banks, the new drama by director Tom Shadyac tells the tale of a talented high school football player imprisoned for a rape he did not commit. Banks' incarceration, probation and sex-offender status ruined his chance at a college athletic scholarship and lucrative NFL career – until Banks decided to do something about his seemingly hopeless situation.
This jail-to-justice story is fodder for a feel-good TV flick, and Doug Atchison's screenplay often lives down to that boob-tube expectation. But an emotionally powerful performance by Aldis Hodge (Leverage, Straight Outta Compton) as Banks and a film-stealing one by relative newcomer Xosha Roquemore as Banks' accuser elevate the film beyond both a typical sports flick and a cable-channel "movie of the week." In fact, Roquemore's character's re-emergence halfway through the film saves the production from narrative drift and, shockingly, is true. (It's refreshing to see a biopic not reinvent its subject's life.)
In a well-cast supporting role is Greg Kinnear as the head of the California Innocence Project, a nonprofit organization devoted to helping wrongly convicted individuals. The CIP is featured so heavily that the film can seem like a message movie. It also teeters on the brink of a religious picture, thanks to references to God and one scene's conveniently placed cross. Kinnear seems to enjoy such films, but it's still nice to see him back from the cinematic wilderness, if only briefly. The same goes for Morgan Freeman, who, in a tiny and uncredited part as Banks' prison mentor, adds gravitas. Sherri Shepherd (Everybody Loves Raymond), as Banks' mother, also enjoys some successful screen time, but a subplot involving a potential romantic interest is a tad contrived, despite a competent performance by Melanie Liburd (This Is Us).
Almost as fascinating as the film are the parallels between subject and director. Shadyac, famous for such middle-brow fare as Bruce Almighty, Patch Adams, Liar Liar and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, experienced a life-altering bicycle accident in 2007. The crash, which gave him post-concussion syndrome and left him suicidal, also offered him a fresh outlook on life. He gave up directing, eschewed materialism, opened a homeless shelter and eventually became a teacher. In fact, except for a documentary about his existential transformation, Brian Banks is Shadyac's first directorial project since Evan Almighty in 2007. Clearly, he was moved by Banks' story. I predict you will be too.
"All you can control in life is how you respond to life," Freeman's character preaches. It's advice that both Banks and Shadyac obviously took to heart.
This story is from the Aug. 7, 2019, print issue of Orlando Weekly. Stay on top of Central Florida news and views with our weekly Headlines newsletter.