French-Turkish director Deniz Gamze Erguven stunned with her first film, “Mustang,” the Oscar-nominated portrait of an unbridled Turkish girlhood straining at the strictures of patriarchy. But the hard truth is the screenplay for her follow-up film, “Kings,” should have stayed on the shelf, as there’s only one word for Erguven’s sophomore effort: baffling.
The film itself — the story of the LA riots as seen through the experience of single mother Millie Dunbar (Halle Berry) and her large family — is baffling, but it’s even more baffling that a director who turned in such an assured debut would miss the mark here in such spectacular fashion.
There are some thematic similarities in Erguven’s films. She leans toward lyrical depictions of youth in revolt struggling against oppressive systems of power. That’s the central beating heart of “Kings,” even when it spins out of control.
Millie’s gaggle of children, a wild, diverse bunch, drives the film. Millie can’t resist taking in strays, and she keeps her tribe of children, fostered and adopted, close, even when they wreak havoc at home and in streets. Berry spends the whole film vacillating between hysterics and hugs.
The film opens with the murder of Latasha Harlins, shot by a liquor store owner when she was stopped for shoplifting. Harlins’ story is often forgotten as one of the main factors in the uprising, and Erguven’s approach is thoughtful and arresting. Harlins’ presence hangs over the rest of the film ominously.
Erguven utilizes a roaming, handheld camera style that heightens the anxiety of the setting, and in the background of the familial chaos is the soundtrack of the news: Harlins’ murder and the verdict, the trial of the four officers who were videotaped beating Rodney King. Erguven weaves archival news footage into her tale that builds to a loud crescendo until it bursts like a dam on the day of the verdict.
The hectic story splits in two during the riots. Millie ends up with her cantankerous writer neighbor Obie (Daniel Craig), looking for her younger boys, while her older son, Jesse (Lamar Johnson), sets off on his own.
He’s locked in a love triangle with his friend William (Kaalan Walker) and a troubled girl, Nicole (Rachel Hilson), and the trio’s experience is moody and tragic, a dark, violent journey. Cutting between this sequence and Millie and Obie’s screwball meet-cute over handcuffs is jarring at best. The film is tonally a mess.
The film’s downfall is the script, which Erguven also wrote. It lacks nuance and subtlety, the characters plainly stating their intentions, thoughts and feelings. It’s an outsider’s view of the event, and unfortunately, it’s naive and reductive. Erguven’s vision is a wild, melodramatic journey that offers no answers or insights, and by the end, it leaves one feeling completely flabbergasted.
(At Barrywoods and Independence Commons.)
Rated R for violence, sexual content/nudity, and language throughout.