EmptySouth by Southwest
AUSTIN -- An early sequence in Mark Webber's "Explicit Ills" carries viewers past rows of abandoned and near-collapsed buildings, navigates debris-strewn empty lots and winds up in a forsaken room where a tiny, healthy tree has sprouted up through decaying floorboards. Audiences who take that image as the start of a certain kind of urban fable -- the spark of life amid squalor -- will be surprised by what follows. The life force of "Ills" isn't in the exceptions but in the community itself, a disjointed cast of characters who have better things to do than bend themselves to some storyteller's idea of social-uplift allegory.
More restrained than many films it might be compared to and never preachy even when its characters go marching through the streets, the movie's an assured directing debut for young actor Webber. Commercial appeal is limited by the absence of an easy narrative hook, but the picture should earn some respect in an art house run.
Set in a rough area of Philadelphia, the story follows characters who cross one another's paths but aren't destined for any kind of climactic collision. The community issues that connect them are downplayed in favor of a focus on individual goals: The scrawny kid wants to bulk up and win a bodybuilding contest, the clean-living loft dwellers want to open a natural grocery, the gentle youngster Babo (bathed in a white glow wherever he wanders) wants to make peace where others would harbor grudges.
While most of the characters are poor and the two who clearly have money are gentrifying white kids in what threatens to be a Sid and Nancy romance, the film doesn't trade in misery. It dwells on personal optimism and good will, even if its most emotionally fraught moments arise from a young mother's inability to afford health insurance.
Benefiting from an unhurried but tight cut by editor Jay Rabinowitz (frequent collaborator of exec producer Jim Jarmusch) and Patrice Lucien Cochet's vivid cinematography (which earned a special jury award, alongside an audience award for best narrative feature, at South by Southwest), "Ills" also draws on recognizable acting names while letting newcomers have the spotlight. Rosario Dawson and Paul Dano, for instance, while understandably highlighted in promo material, appear here solely as warm supporting figures for young charmer Francisco Burgos (Babo), who's making his feature debut. Webber's way with his young cast is as unforced as the movie itself, which easily could have been overwrought and maudlin but is instead oddly affirming.
Mangusta Prods., Film 101, AM/FM Films, Riker Hill Films
Sales agent: Endeavor
Screenwriter-director: Mark Webber
Producers: Mark Webber, Sol Tryon, Liz Destro
Executive producer: Jim Jarmusch
Director of photography: Patrice Lucien Cochet
Production designer: Michael Grasley
Music: Khari Mateen
Costume designer: Nikia Nelson
Editor: Jay Rabinowitz
Rocco: Paul Dano
Babo's Mom: Rosario Dawson
Jill: Naomie Harris
Jacob: Lou Taylor Pucci
Michelle: Frankie Shaw
Kaleef: Tariq Trotter
Babo: Francisco Burgos
Demetri: Martin Cepeda Jr.
The Girl: Destini Edwards
Running time -- 87 minutes
No MPAA rating