Crafted with the same measured intensity and quiet authority found in his best onscreen work, Denzel Washington’s debut behind the camera, “Antwone Fisher,” is an emotionally charged true-life story of one man’s tenacity and eventual redemption. Wisely streamlining the autobiography “Finding Fish” into an absorbing narrative focusing on a young Navy recruit’s rocky maturation and search for his real family, Antwone Fisher’s somewhat talky but never pokey script has been realized with a firm hand by Washington, who elicits commanding lead perfs from a pair of appealing newcomers. Fox Searchlight has pushed this prestige item back from late November to Dec. 20, when it will perform strongly with auds looking for quality adult entertainment and a good cry.
Possessed of a moody demeanor and a hair-trigger temper that runs him afoul of his C.O. (an uncredited single-scene cameo from James Brolin), Seaman Fisher (Derek Luke) is sent to San Diego base psychiatrist Jerome Davenport (Washington) for evaluation. An intelligent man who sketches and is learning Japanese, Fisher also possesses a simmering rage. He defiantly tells Davenport, “I don’t have no problems,” and responds to questions about his childhood with dodges like, “I come from under a rock.”
After weeks of evasiveness and outright silence, Fisher’s story begins to emerge in flashbacks that punctuate the main action. Born to an incarcerated mother two months after his father was shot to death, the boy endured extraordinary mental and physical abuse at the hands of foster parent Mrs. Tate (Novella Nelson) in Cleveland. From there he was placed in an orphanage and later was released into a homeless shelter, moving straight from there to enlistment in the Navy.
Abruptly, the service-mandated three therapy sessions are over, yet Davenport is unable to let go of his bright but troubled patient. At the same time, Antwone, who’s never really asked anybody for anything, finds the thought of yet another authority figure deserting him to be unbearable.
Slowly, Fisher begins to control his demons, and at Davenport’s urging and with the support of g.f. Cheryl (Joy Bryant), begins to search for his real mother in Ohio. At the same time, the shrink begins to welcome Antwone into his own troubled family, finding his influence on Davenport’s relationship with his wife, Berta (Salli Richardson), to be beneficial.
Washington reveals himself to be a filmmaker with a clean, uncluttered storytelling style. Too often, overtly inspirational material such as this can become strident or mawkish, yet here the determinedly nonsensational approach keeps pic on an even emotional keel throughout. Risk of relying on extensive dialogue sequences pays off handsomely, as Luke and Bryant give perfs of unforced assurance and large company of secondary players are pitch-perfect in support. Washington offers his branded mix of authoritarian and Everyman, tough and forceful when Fisher stands up to him but disarmingly gentle when needed.
The narrative of Fisher’s memoir has been compacted to place events during his stint in the Navy. Gone from the story are his subsequent experiences as a federal corrections officer and security guard on the Sony Pictures lot, the latter job being his entree to the biz a decade ago via a relationship with “A Knight’s Tale” producer Todd Black (oddly enough, per press kit, Luke also had a service industry job at Sony when he landed the role).
Tech package is pro all the way, with Philippe Rousselot’s crisp widescreen lensing imbuing the early therapy sequences with a tangible visual tension. Particularly apropos in a story of yearning for family, Nelson Coates’ production design and David S. Lazan’s art direction emphasize the cozy emotional allure of warm living spaces.