Sollers Point

You know the frustration you had watching The Florida Project? You liked Willem Dafoe’s character, but wondered why he kept helping out the loser living in his hotel. In this movie, you like Keith. He’s a nice guy that seems to want to get his life on track after a stint in prison. He’s dealing with his dad’s attitude, and some former gang members that think he still owes them.

McCaul Lombardi (American Honey, Patti Cakes) is excellent as Keith. He’s good looking (reminding me of a young Jeremy Renner), and polite to the people he meets. Despite the fact that we’re watching him continuously make bad decisions, we keep rooting for him to get his sh** together.

His dad is played wonderfully by Jim Belushi, although he’s underused. He was also good in Woody Allen’s last (disappointing) movie Wonder Wheel. Belushi seems to work better playing a working class type and not the lame comedies where we’re always reminded of how much funnier his brother John was.

The film uses its Baltimore locations nicely, and it has a naturalistic, realistic feel. It just needed a stronger script and to not meander so much.

When I watch a movie like this, I’m always curious about when other audience members will stop liking the protagonist. In the beginning, we see him asking his parole officer if he can leave town to attend his niece’s birthday party. He has a good relationship with his sister and the guys in the neighborhood seem to like him. Yet with each bad decision — going to a strip club and causing trouble, starting to sell drugs again, bringing an art student to a drug den so he can buy a gun…I stopped caring about him at about the 40 minute mark. I’m guessing most of the audience will be with him for awhile longer.

The shame if it all is that there are some powerful scenes in this. One involves another gang Keith visits and the bizarre philosophizing the dude drones on about regarding loyalty and toughness. A scene when an ex-girlfriend (Zazie Beetz, who was so great as Domino in Deadpool 2) is reluctantly letting him spend a few minutes with his old dog, as well as a later scene when she wants to call the cops on him for breaking into her house and taking the dog. Watching as the father tries talking her out of that, and realizing that as frustrated as these two are with Keith, they both care about him and don’t want to see him go back to jail.

It’s a shame that this ultimately doesn’t work, because it’s a rather fresh take on a story we’ve seen before — the guy out of prison trying to do the right thing but being pulled back into a life of crime.

Going back to my comparison to The Florida Project, I thought that movie would’ve worked better knowing more about the hotel manager (Dafoe) and less about the losers living in the hotel. In this, I would’ve liked the opposite — seeing more of the characters and less of Keith. Not because he isn’t a strong presence on screen, he is. It’s because I can only take so much of a guy listening to death metal and brooding in his bedroom, as if the world has dealt him a bad hand. A few of the scenes he was in confused my wife and I. One of those had him with a girl in a hotel room, and it seemed like she was a prostitute, yet they also seemed to know each other. We’re not sure exactly what was going on with that.

Director Matthew Porterfield (Putty Hill, I Used to Be Darker) has made a more low-key film than usual. I was wondering why he didn’t explore some of the gang activity, and “white power” versus rapper Marquis (Brieyon Bell-El), who is a friend of Keith’s and is going to have him do artwork for an upcoming CD.

Instead, there are a couple of scenes with an addict/prostitute (Alyssa Bresnahan) that goes nowhere. Another scene with his grandmother (Lynn Cohen) is sweet, but cliche.

Watching a petty criminal in a downward spiral can be thrilling on screen. Nash Edgerton’s The Square is a great example, as well as the foreign film Headhunters.

Everyone involved in this movie, from the cast, director, and cinematographer, are going to benefit from this film. It’s all well done, but just needed a stronger script that didn’t feel so improvised.

It’s opening this weekend at the Digital Gym.

2 stars out of 5.