Among a powerhouse vet cast, Hill Harper shines in “The Visit” as an imprisoned young man who transcends anger — however justified — and seeks redemption. The intelligent script, based on Kosmond Rus-sell’s play, is full of heart-wrenching emotion, bracing humor and universal truths about family, hope and personal responsibility. Fittingly, the pic premiered in Pasadena’s second annual Method Fest, which emphasizes thesping. A smart distributor could parlay the af-fecting story and fine performances to box office action in major met-ropolitan markets, through a wide range of demographics; with its fundamental strengths and appeal, this is the kind of film that renders the term “crossover” meaningless.
Behind the barbed wire of the state penitentiary, well-off family man Tony (Obba Babatunde) visits his younger brother, Alex (Harper), for the first time in 10 months. Indicative of the film’s emotional depth and the charged performances, the look the two brothers exchange when they first see each other speaks volumes on the shame, uncertainty and unshakable love between them.
Alex maintains his innocence of the rape for which he was incarcerated, and holds out hope for his upcoming parole hearing. Brooding, contained and caustic, he resents his family’s seeming abandonment of him; in the five years he’s been in stir, Tony has been the only one to visit, and is the only one who knows that Alex is suffering from AIDS, evidently the result of a rape in the pen. To his brother he admits that he’s dying and presses Tony to get their parents to visit him.
Alex’s journey toward a spiritual breakthrough plays out in a series of exchanges with his visiting brother and parents (Marla Gibbs and Billy Dee Williams) and in sessions with therapist Dr. Coles (Phylicia Rashad). The dialogues are realistic and provocative; in every case, both sides have something to say, something to learn.
The conversations are punctuated by flashbacks to childhood memories, and by nighttime reveries in which Alex is visited in his cell by the princi-pal people in his life and responds with the openness of the good man/son/child he is in his heart.
In a brilliant sequence that succinctly conveys the seemingly tangential forces that can shape an individual’s destiny, Alex appears before the parole board. Not only do we witness the panel’s decision-making process on the prisoner whose case they hear just before Alex’s, but we’re privy to their between-hearings banter, which reveals the quirks and ambitions of the board members — indelibly etched, in their brief screen time, by Talia Shire, David Clennon, Glynn Turman, Efrain Figueroa and Amy Stiller — but never reduces them to authoritarian caricatures or denies their essential seriousness.
The top-notch cast never hits a false note. Producer-scripter-helmer Jor-dan Walker-Pearlman and d.p. John Ndiaga Demps wisely shoot a signifi-cant portion of the film in tight closeup; thesps fully embody their charac-ters, and their faces are poignant reflections of unspoken emotion. Williams and Babatunde are convincing as father and son, proud of their hard work and financial success, and reluctant to face their profound disappointment and hurt over the wrong turns Alex has taken.
Gibbs, best known for “The Jeffersons,” makes it amply clear that her talents are not limited to comedy; she delivers a subtly aching perf as a loving mother who’s painfully aware that she’s compromised her better instincts in order to keep peace with her headstrong husband. With her penetrating gaze, Rashad’s therapist is a surrogate maternal presence in Alex’s life.
As Felicia, the childhood friend who re-enters Alex’s life at a crucial juncture, Rae Dawn Chong is radiant, full of quiet joy and determination. It makes perfect sense that this woman, saved from the lowest depths of abuse, despair and addiction, provides a reason for living that ultimately heals Alex and his family.
At the center of the rich drama, Harper, who has had supporting roles in films including “He Got Game” and “Hav Plenty,” is riveting. He delivers a complex, potentially star-making turn as Alex, who is likable even at his angriest.
Walker-Pearlman has crafted a thoroughly cinematic adaptation of a stage work. Prison segs, shot at L.A.’s shuttered Lincoln Heights Jail, aptly express the oppressive atmosphere as well as Alex’s chosen isolation. But pic also ventures beyond the prison walls into the startling sunlight of the recreational yard in a heart-stopping scene that leads to the protag’s life-changing epiphany.
Pic is technically polished in all regards. An effective, if at times too in-sistent, musical soundtrack ranges from jazz piano noodlings to stirring gospel. Occasional sequences in which music subs for dialogue would wear thin with a lesser cast.