Aldis Hodge is a terrific young actor, straight out of “Straight Outta Compton,” “Hidden Figures,” the WGN America series “Underground” and soon to appear in, among others, the remake of “The Invisible Man.” He’s especially effective as a slow boil, letting a character’s inner life and torments bubble up vividly but naturally.
“Brian Banks” is somewhat less terrific – a conventionally made docudrama elevated by Aldis and his fellow performers, including Greg Kinnear, Melanie Liburd and Sherri Smith. But the story pulls you along, traveling a long, winding path from wrongful conviction to exoneration.
In 2002, 16-year-old Brian Banks, a student and football star at Long Beach (California) Polytechnic High School, was charged with rape and kidnapping. He took a plea deal for nearly six years in prison, a five-year probation and the requirement that he register as a sex offender. His accuser, a fellow Polytechnic student whose name has been changed for the movie version of events, won a $1.5 million settlement from the Long Beach school district. The assault, she said, took place in the classroom-lined basement of a school building, not far from classes in session.
Years later the woman got in touch with Banks on Facebook. Under video surveillance, in a face-to-face meeting, she recanted her testimony. But she wasn’t told she was being videotaped: a textbook example of inadmissible evidence. Banks’ longtime ally, champion and legal representation, Justin Brooks of the California Innocence Project, believed his client’s story. “Brian Banks,” on which Banks and Brooks served as executive producers, streamlines the full, fraught account into an inspirational message picture.
The writer, Doug Atchison (“Akeelah and the Bee”), and the director, Tom Shadyac (“Patch Adams,” “Bruce Almighty”), go a fair distance in humanizing various sides of a case resting on the dishonesty of the accuser. It’s a dicey time to revisit such a case, dealing as we are with fallout from so many clouds hanging over the #MeToo era. “Brian Banks” rightly leans into any opportunity to complicate the lives of these people, most effectively in scenes between Hodge and Liburd, the latter portraying Banks’ fellow gym rat, trainer and love interest.
Kinnear can make the flattest of boilerplate dialogue – “The system is broken; it just doesn’t care” – sound like someone just thinking out loud and saying what’s on a generically written real-life character’s mind. As Banks’ prison mentor and spiritual turnaround wizard, Morgan Freeman brings the gravitas, while Smith (as Banks’ devoted mother) brings the gravitas plus the fervent Christian overlay ever-present in the movie.
“Brian Banks” proceeds non-chronologically, toggling between high school years and Banks’ post-prison life. This helps keep the audience on its toes. But it’s the actors who complicate things most fruitfully.
Rated PG-13 for thematic content and related images, and for language.