The title of the movie Brian Banks shows a glaring lack of imagination and fairly low marketing savvy. How many casual moviegoers are going to remember the aspiring NFL player imprisoned in 2002 in a plea deal over a bogus high school rape charge, whose claim of innocence attracted some media attention in 2012? Not many. And the distributor, Bleecker Street, has barely promoted the film.
To its credit, it’s an engaging and well made movie, directed by Tom Shadyac, the former Hollywood hotshot who helmed Patch Adams and several smash hit comedies with Eddie Murphy and Jim Carrey in the 1990s and early 2000s. For Brian Banks, Shadyac has recruited Greg Kinnear to play the lawyer who eventually takes on Banks’ case, and Morgan Freeman as the man who inspired Banks in prison. The lead is the appealing and accomplished Aldis Hodge, perhaps not a household name but recognizable from notable roles in Hidden Figures and Straight Outta Compton and a lot of TV shows.
For all that, Brian Banks still lives in “Movie of the Week” territory, that realm of safe, earnest movies that try to humanize Big Social Issues — in this case, our “broken justice system,” as various characters remark several times. In the film, as in real life, Banks is just 16 when he’s pressured into a plea deal that sends him to prison for six years and makes him a registered sex offender for life — largely based on shaky testimony from the alleged victim, which the DA’s office failed to investigate.
The film picks up the story once Banks is on probation, with an ankle bracelet, and badgers the nonprofit California Innocence Project into looking into his case. Once one of the nation’s top NFL draft prospects, he’s now banned even from a community college team.
So you know where this is going, even if you’ve never heard of Banks. There are dueling mothers — Banks’ and the accuser’s — and the disconnected accuser herself (in a disturbingly real performance by Xosha Roquemore), as well as some idealistic young law students and a potential love interest (the charming Melanie Liburd). Shadyac produces the necessary nail-biting and tears on the way to the unlikely (but actual) victory, and the end credits offer photos of not only the real Banks but also other clients the California Innocence Project has helped free.
The final title cards also suggest a future for Banks that isn’t exactly what happened (check Wikipedia after you see the movie), but the point is less the details of Banks’ story than the illustration of the nearly impossible hurdles wrongly convicted people have to surmount to clear their names. If the questions Brian Banks raises linger longer than its tears, it has done its job well.
Grade: B. Rated PG-13. Now showing at the Carolina Cinemark and Regal Biltmore Grande.
(Photo: Bleecker Street)