Brian Banks is the kind of indie project that often gets left behind in the movie theaters, a semi-inspirational human interest story that later gets discovered on home video where it finds its audience.
Picked up by indie distributor Bleecker Street, Brian Banks tells the story of former football player Brian Banks, who was one of Rivals.com's "Juniors to Watch" in 2003 having verbally committed to USC in his junior year at California's Polytechnic High School. Banks's promising football future was derailed after being falsely accused of rape by classmate Wanetta Gibson. After being given bad legal advice and taking a plea deal, which he expected to lead to probation, Banks was instead incarcerated for nearly six years and on a strict custody agreement for another five. It's only after his accuser contacts him via Facebook to "make amends" that an unlikely door opens to complete exoneration with the help of California Innocence Project's Justin Brooks (Greg Kinnear).
Directed by Tom Shadyac, more known comedic fare like Liar Liar and The Nutty Professor, Brian Banks is a flawed, at times immensely flawed, yet engaging effort that works on the strengths of its co-leads, Aldis Hodge (Straight Outta Compton) as Banks and Kinnear's turn as Brooks. Hodge's career up to this point has mostly been as a supporting player, though his performance here serves up solid evidence that he may be ready to become a leading man. Hodge avoids the cliche's for the most part, even when they're front-and-center in Doug Atchison's mostly Mr. Obvious script. Hodge is powerful in the film's justifiably angry scenes, though it's in the film's quieter moments where he truly shines.
As Justin Brooks, Kinnear once again proves to be one of Hollywood's best of the journeyman actors. An Academy Award nominee for As Good As It Gets, Kinnear has won both Daytime Emmy and SAG awards and yet seems to still be one of Hollywood's more underappreciated actors. A native Hoosier, Kinnear has always had a gift for playing ordinary joes with a bit of a twist and here he manages to embody Brooks's self-protective wariness about taking on a kind of case the California Innocence Project had never accepted yet he also captures Brooks's relentless pursuit of justice and desire to do the right thing. While there's no question that Brian Banks dances on that whole "white savior" line, for the most part the story itself does and Atchison's script, while dripping in melodrama, remains largely faithful to the core elements of the real life story. It's rather refreshing, in fact, that Brian Banks is more focused on justice than on its potentially rah-rah inspirational moments. While there's certainly inspiration to be found here, Brian Banks is certainly not The Blind Side.
While one could argue that Brian Banks is a fairly paint-by-numbers motion picture, Shadyac frames it wisely by shooting the film in non-chronological order and allowing us to become immersed in Banks as a human being before dealing with the actual rape for which he was falsely accused. It'll be interesting to see how a film like Brian Banks plays in the #MeToo era, though the film's adherence to the facts will certainly work in its favor. Brian's alleged victim, played with jarring normalcy by Xosha Roquemore, would eventually win a $1.5 million settlement from the school system after she sued over the school's unsafe environment.
There's no question there are problematic elements within Brian Banks, most especially tonal inconsistencies where it seems like it's aiming for a profundity it never achieves. However, taken for what it is, a modestly budgeted indie telling an engaging, mostly unknown story about the not so thin line between justice and injustice, Brian Banks works more than it will likely be given credit for and is worth a watch if for no other reason than for the thrill of watching two talented actors rise above otherwise mediocre material. Supporting players are for the most part an afterthought, including a relatively brief turn by Morgan Freeman playing the kind of wise truth-teller that he could play in his sleep.
For more information about Brian Banks, visit the film's Facebook page linked to in the credits.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic