Every generation needs its Tom Joad, the everyman protagonist in The Grapes of Wrath, struggling in the face of untenable odds. Given the dire straits we face today, there is a filmmaking temptation to recreate Joad for modern times. In Explicit Ills actor-turned-director Mark Webber takes an unsuccessful stab at it. The film, in which love, poverty, addiction and a socially conscious movement collide, has the prophetic tag line, “One voice can change everything.” Unfortunately, that voice is mute.
Set in multicultural Philadelphia and starring Rosario Dawson, Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter and Paul Dano, the film follows four distinct story lines tied loosely by the overarching theme of poverty in the city of Brotherly Love.
The film’s heart is in the right place, and there are some decent performances, including that of the precocious Francisco Burgos as Babo. And Lord knows we could use some insights about poverty, an issue that is ever more pressing in the current economic climate.
But if you are going to tackle and present such a downer, you better entertain the hell out of the audience, too. One of the story lines involves a young white couple (Frankie Shaw and Lou Taylor Pucci) suffering from poverty of good judgment. Rule No. 1: Never get involved with your dealer. The characters progress or regress through a haze of weed, taking breaks for lovemaking and her art.
Another story line follows a striving married black activist couple (Naomie Harris and Trotter) raising a teenager. Both are earthy, do-gooder, bohemian types trying to save the world. (Except that mom likes a blunt now and then. Her explanation to her son as to why she lights up should be a training video.)
There is also an adolescent love story (Martin Cepeda and Destini Edwards) that seems a bit out of place, except for maybe as a metaphor for innocence among the weeds and boarded-up buildings. Cepeda’s chameleonic change from swaggering rogue to bespectacled bookworm is more comic relief than earnest transformation. At least he gets the girl.
And then there is Babo and his mom, a subtle, unstylish, but still sexy Dawson. Their story drives the film’s narrative, which leads up to an anti-poverty march. When the climactic dénouement comes before the end of the film, it completes a predictable arc that saps its power.
The march scene at the end of the film was a real event, organized by the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign, and according to Webber, the only part of the film they had no permit for, Webber makes a cameo appearance at the march alongside his mother, a real-life activist.
It’s easy to see why the film won three South By Southwest (SXSW) awards in 2008, including the Audience Award and a Special Jury Award for Patrice Lucien Cochet’s luscious cinematography, because the film addresses issues that affect all our lives. It’s also a welcomed change from all the superhero drama coming down the pike.
Other films like Paul Haggis’ Crash or the late Robert Altman’s Short Cuts had narrative threads that held them together more seamlessly. I applaud the effort, but I wish Explicit Ills was—explicitly or implicitly—a better film.
Nick Charles is a regular contributor to The Root.