1982: Santa Barbara Review

Suitably low-key but sometimes under-realized, this drama is fueled by its working-class milieu and a heart-wrenching performance by Hill Harper.

Hill Harper portrays a working-class father who must face the fallout of his wife’s crack habit.

Movies about drug addiction tend to focus on the grim spectacle of the user’s out-of-control behavior. Writer-director Tommy Oliver’s feature debut, 1982, instead zeroes in on those left watching -- specifically, the husband and child of a woman who trades family life for the crack pipe. Set in the title year in working-class Philadelphia, the feature takes a spare, restrained approach that’s marred by melodramatic lapses at key points. But the generally subdued tone serves the material well, and the film is especially enriched by the quiet intensity of Hill Harper, whose lead performance received an honorable mention at the Santa Barbara festival, where the film was in competition.

As Tim, a steadfast family man, Harper is a figure of profound heartbreak and resilience. Even before his marriage to Shenae (Sharon Leal) is devastated by drugs, it’s already showing strain, evident in his hopeful efforts at romance in the face of repeated rejection. Though they’re both amazed and delighted by their 10-year-old daughter, Maya (Troi Zee), a gifted student, Shenae is clearly distracted and unhappy, her housekeeping a pantomime of anger. Lured in all too obvious fashion by hotshot dealer Alonzo (Wayne Brady), she slips into a life devoted to getting high, and takes off the instant Tim confronts her.

In a striking change of pace, Brady is magnetic and menacing as Alonzo, but it’s a thinly conceived role, with Oliver’s screenplay etching out little more than a cookie-cutter neighborhood villain. The rest of the cast -- which includes Bokeem Woodbine, La Anthony, Quinton Aaron and Ruby Dee, whose beauty and rich voice are more compelling than ever as she enters her 90s -- likewise invest briefly glimpsed, one-note characters with evocative shadings.

At its heart, the film is two-hander between Harper and Zee. Tim does everything he can to keep up the spirits of a bright girl who can see quite clearly through his bravery to his pain. Harper’s complex turn is a tense balancing act of love, despair and determination, some of it blind. Zee is convincingly torn, especially after Tim’s awakening that he can’t rescue someone who won’t meet him partway.

Drawing upon his childhood in Philadelphia, Oliver captures the period just before crack use became a rampant problem in American cities. Leal avoids drug-user clichés as Shenae and delivers a believable portrait of selfish single-mindedness, suggesting the salvageable soul beneath the surface. The screenplay alludes to her character’s past problems with drugs but, to its credit, doesn’t substitute psychologizing for action.

Oliver maintains his concern with his characters’ behavior in the moment. But he treats some of the story’s toughest turning points at a stylized remove, subbing the fine score by John Jennings Boyd for dialogue and, in one case, filtering the event through a gloss of slow motion. The final scenes play out in a less-than-convincing, and not entirely satisfying, rush of histrionic incident over insight.

Those are unfortunate choices given the subdued naturalism of the rest of the film. Through the perfect understatement of Daniel Vecchione’s widescreen camerawork and Maggie Ruder’s production design, the Philadelphia locations build a strong setting for the drama, with Harper’s potent work holding the center.

Venue: Santa Barbara Film Festival

Production: Black Squirrel Films, Confluential Films

Cast: Hill Harper, Sharon Leal, Troi Zee, Wayne Brady, Bokeem Woodbine, La La Anthony, Quinton Aaron, Ruby Dee

Writer-director-producer: Tommy Oliver

Executive producers: Hill Harper, Heather Rae, Marcea Bland-Lloyd, Paull Cho

Director of photography: Daniel Vecchione

Production designer: Maggie Ruder

Music: John Jennings Boyd

Costume designer: Lindsey Kruichak

Editors: Tovah Leibowitz, Tommy Oliver

No MPAA rating; 87 min.

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