'Flint': TV Review

The real crisis continues, and it's necessary to remember.

The Flint water crisis gets respectful-if-unremarkable treatment in a Lifetime movie driven by stars Jill Scott, Betsy Brandt, Marin Ireland and Queen Latifah.

There's a colloquialism we hear attached to certain stories: "It's just like a Lifetime movie!"

I watch enough Lifetime movies that I don't really understand what that means anymore.

Yes, the cabler still does plenty of fictional women-in-peril movies, as well as real-life approaches to the genre like the hilarious-looking upcoming The Lost Wife of Robert Durst, but Lifetime movies also include the oddly ambitious and weirdly experimental lesbian vampire take on Mother, May I Sleep With Danger? and a recent string of film-festival duds, like that Nicole Kidman thing where she played Grace Kelly. And that's before the network gets into its Hallmark-esque string of holiday movies.

All of this makes it hard to properly approach a Lifetime movie like Flint. Easy to pigeon-hole as a true-life women-in-peril drama, Flint is entirely non-exploitative and honorable in its intentions and largely average in its execution, elevated mostly by a splendid ensemble of actresses.

As you hopefully are already aware, Flint, Michigan's 2014 decision to switch water sources triggered a health crisis that was then exacerbated and extended by bureaucratic apathy and antipathy, an environmental disaster that has yet to be fully resolved either in terms of short-term accommodations for the residents of Flint or long-term understanding of its impact.

Following in the "civilian activist" tradition of a Silkwood or Erin Brockovich, Barbara Stepansky's adaptation of the Time cover story "The Toxic Tap" focuses primarily on a trio of women who saw something going horribly wrong in their community and went up against the disinterested and often obstructive powers-that-be to try to save Flint.

Our primary protagonists, all based on real people, are LeeAnne Walters (Betsy Brandt), Melissa Mays (Marin Ireland) and Nayyirah Shariff (Jill Scott). Only Scott's Shariff begins the story as an organizer engaged in Flint's politics, but the loosely assembled tale focuses on how online radio DJ Mays and housewife Walters become involved, as the Flint crisis becomes an ongoing referendum on economic status, race and gender roles. Somewhat less integrated into the movie are nurse Adina Banks (Lyndie Greenwood) and her mother Iza Banks (Queen Latifah, who also executive produces), two roles that I believe are fictional composites and feel like it.

The tragedy of Flint, city and movie, is one of tiered marginalization and institutional failings, a portrait of what it takes to make bottom-line-obsessed white male authority figures take note of a nightmare that's occurring outside of their zip code. Stepansky's script is smart in terms of how it handles different the ways in which women and minorities and the economically disadvantaged are silenced or ignored. As children and then adults begin experiencing rashes, seizures and illness as a result of the water, we seem how blame is shifted and displaced based on who is talking.

The main characters in Flint are thinly sketched, but the actresses all nicely balance harrowed intensity with believable camaraderie, as part of a narrative that becomes repetitive in ways that are both intentional and disappointing. Over and over again, these women discover that if nobody in charge will do the right thing on their behalf, they have to do it themselves, which is where the heroism comes through. There's a varied sameness to what the women do, as they push for testing and seek out allies and play to the media, all the while worrying that they're protesting into a void. The less varied sameness is in dealing with the antagonists, which isn't exactly shocking since this is an ongoing case and the bad guys haven't all been fully exposed or even self-justifying in real-life yet, but which doesn't excuse the number of wooden, mustache-twirling supporting performances and their function in the story. There's so much outrage to go around in Flint, both the city and the story in the telefilm, that the over-reliance on one-dimensional baddies is draining.

Oscar-nominated director Bruce Beresford (Tender Mercies) competently blends some Flint exteriors with Toronto shooting locations, without giving the movie a strong sense of place. He deserves some credit for the sturdy performances and strong chemistry between the actresses, and also some blame for the cardboard villains. There's nothing Beresford or Stepansky can do about the open-ended reality of the calamity, an arc that leads to an unsatisfying conclusion that probably should have shifted the focus to a look at what Flint looks like in fall 2017 and a clearer call-to-action regarding what can be done there and to prevent similar situations, rather than trying to land on a hollow "inspirational" ending.

Flint is still a respectful and respectable reminder of a debacle that has yet to be repaired, one that will be impacting countless lives for decades to come. It's a tribute to the power and necessity of civilian advocacy, well-portrayed by Scott, Ireland, Brandt, Greenwood and Queen Latifah.

It's a Lifetime original that shouldn't get lost in our preconceived notion of what a Lifetime movie tends to be.

Premieres: Saturday, 8 p.m. ET/PT (Lifetime)