If good intentions and a righteous cause were enough to make a film outstanding, Brian Banks would win all the Oscars come next February. The basic outlines of this film are based on real events—in this case, the life of Brian Banks (Aldis Hodge), a poor kid who hoped that football would provide him a path out of the ghetto. At first, all seemed to be proceeding according to plan—blessed with athletic talent, Banks was a star at Polytechnic High School in Long Beach, California, and was recruited by Pete Carroll (Matt Battaglia) to play at USC. Then it all went wrong at age 16 when a high school classmate accused him of rape. Given remarkably inadequate legal counsel, Banks took a plea deal that required him to serve almost six years in prison, followed by another five years of parole under close supervision. He also had to register as a sex offender, which meant a number of restrictions that made it difficult for him to attend school, hold down a job, or live anything like a normal life.
Brian Banks, with a screenplay by Doug Atchison (who also penned Akeelah and the Bee), cuts back and forth in time from Banks’ early life to his efforts to rebuild his life as an adult. The California Innocence Project, led by Justin Brooks (Greg Kinnear), plays a key role in Banks’ efforts to reverse his conviction, and he also has the undying support of his mother (Sherri Shepherd) as well as a romance with a co-worker (Melanie Liburd) to sustain him. Both actresses are treated as mere appendages to Bank’s story, despite a rather clumsy attempt to hint at the fact that usually it’s the woman rather than the man who is disbelieved in cases of rape. Rather amazingly, Banks’ accuser contacts him online, and is willing to admit that she lied about what happened, but life has yet more to throw at our hero—in fact, you may begin to wonder if his real name is Job, such are the injustices heaped upon him.
There’s never any doubt about Banks’ innocence in Brian Banks, because we see both the alleged incident and what motivated the student in question to lie (a security guard so palpably evil she might as well have two horns and a tail, a characteristic shared by several other authority figures in this movie). For that matter, as portrayed in this film, Banks never did anything wrong in his life, other than the momentary lapse of judgment that led him to agree to make out with a fellow student in a spot within their high school that was notorious for that purpose. Even then, Banks thought the better of his choice and left without doing anything that should have had consequences other than perhaps getting detention for being in the halls without a pass. Unfortunately, that’s not what happens, and while I can’t testify to the truth of each incident or characterization in Brian Banks, the fact is that a real person served real time for something that he didn’t even come close to doing. Whether that story profits from being told in a highly melodramatic style, as is the case in this film, is another question altogether.
For some reason, the term melodrama seems to be reserved these days mostly for women’s films, but in truth it describes a broad class of films that are often designed to appeal to men, including most American action, sports, and war films. If a film features stock characters and plot lines, provides crystal-clear distinctions between good and evil, and is built around a succession of action sequences rather than character development, it’s a melodrama. Done right, melodramas work like well-oiled machines, cranking up the audience’s emotions through well-known cinematic techniques, then paying them off so everyone leaves the theater satisfied. Because the righting of wrongs is often a theme of melodrama, the audience may leave feeling uplifted as well, basking in the glow of justice clearer and more certain than is usually achieved in the messy real world.
One of the more interesting story lines concerning Brian Bankslies not in the film or in the real life of the titular character, but in the career progression of director Tom Shadyac. Reportedly the youngest joke writer ever to work with Bob Hope, Shadyac also enjoyed early success directing comedy films, including Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994), The Nutty Professor (1996), Liar Liar (1997), and Bruce Almighty (2003). Then, following a head injury from a bicycle accident, he began a number of charitable endeavors and became interested in life’s big questions, as evidenced in his 2010 documentary I Am.
Brian Banks is the first film Shadyac has made since 2010, and it’s interesting precisely because it clearly intends to make a serious point about social justice, while shamelessly exploiting all the tricks and devices of an audience-pleasing Hollywood melodrama in the service of that cause. I predict that audiences will love it, while critics will be more reserved, and there’s nothing wrong with that. After all, Shadyac’s last film, I Am, has an audience score of 80% on rottentomatoes.com, versus a critical score of 36%, and the earth is still turning on its axis. | Sarah Boslaugh