Writer-director Mark Webber and family more or less play themselves in a semi-autobiographical film about urban decay.
Commingling elements of fiction and documentary is the trickiest kind of creative alchemy — a challenge “Flesh and Blood” rises to with results that are consistently interesting but somewhat awkward nonetheless. Actor Mark Webber’s fourth feature as writer-director, the story of a man who returns home after a number of years to discover that little has changed, is even more plainly autobiographical than its predecessors, with Webber, his immediate family members and various intimates from his native Philadelphia all playing themselves.
That there’s an authenticity to the results may be unsurprising, but it’s still impressively packaged into an atmospheric, technically well-crafted whole. On the downside, it’s also no surprise that the weakest aspect here is a somewhat half-hearted attempt to impose dramatic structure on the more anecdotal, personality-driven stuff of life itself. If, in the final analysis, this is an experiment that doesn’t quite gel, it’s still one that will be worth the risk taken for adventurous viewers.
The fictive part here is, apparently, the basic premise: Mark (Webber) gets out of prison after serving several years’ stint for a murky criminal offense, and has to re-integrate himself into a society that’s changed frustratingly little in his absence. As his mother tells him, welfare and drugs remain the leading sources of “employment” in their poor, racially mixed, inner-city Philly hood. Legit jobs are no easier to come by than they were when he left; he’s lucky she’s able to pull a few favors and get him hired as a gofer at a local auto shop. Though trying to keep his own nose clean, Mark reunites with various old buddies who still party hard, as well as his ex-girlfriend (Madeline Brewer), who now has a newborn child by another beau.
Already a screen veteran of nearly two decades, Webber holds the camera easily, yet Mark is something of a central void here — almost everything to do with him is ill-defined. That includes his struggles to remain crime- and substance-free, which the screenplay vaguely gestures toward as primary story engines. Perhaps this is because Mark’s ex-con status is the only major, total fabrication here. Everything else is unvarnished verite, much of it presumably improvised when not simply observed, like the first-person testimonies his mother and half-brother give to a video camera Mark buys.
Those two character are “Flesh and Blood’s” most true-to-life as well as its most fully revealed. Much younger sibling Guillermo wears braces, and describes himself as a nerd (he’s been diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome). Bullied at school, he admits to occasionally feeling suicidal … and homicidal. Their mother (Cheri Honkala) was herself a teenage runaway from an abusive home, and was homeless on and off with firstborn Mark (to whom she gave birth at age 15). Many years later, she conceived Guillermo with a different addict boyfriend.
Now she seems at least somewhat on terra firma as a community activist and recovery counselor. And she’s also running as vice president to Jill Stein’s Green Party presidential candidate — something Honkala actually did in 2012, but which is made puzzlingly little of here. (Perhaps that’s because since last fall’s national election, Stein & party don’t seem all that flattering an association, even to liberals. In any case, this real-world political activity feels like an element that got drastically truncated in Sven Pape’s editing.)
Both mother and half-brother are compelling figures with no obvious hangups about exposing their innermost thoughts and feelings on camera. Far less fully explored, if often intriguing and effective as background, is a large cast of peripheral figures presumably also playing themselves — though their precise significance to the protagonist is seldom illuminated.
The film does find a degree of dramatic payoff in scenes with Guillermo’s father (also named Guillermo Santos), a Latino hipster who clearly hasn’t conquered his chemical demons. It also finds a cathartic payoff in Mark’s relationship with his own pere, a sober but ailing man whom he drives to meet up with in the Midwest after decades’ estrangement. Though there is some punch to these encounters, the film feels like it simply jerks to a halt at the fadeout, sans any sense of proper narrative or even poetical resolution. Nor do the brief, wordless flashbacks scattered throughout seem more than a clumsy attempt at patching holes in an overall narrative that’s full of them.
If “Flesh and Blood” works better as a series of vivid semi-documentary impressions than it does as unified storytelling, with individual scenes attaining a rhythm that’s lacking in the uneven whole, the package does hold together in aesthetic and technical terms. In particular, DP Patrice Lucien Cochet’s widescreen images capture cityscapes untouched by gentrification and redevelopment, making for a movie that’s no period piece, yet in visual terms is almost eerily redolent of gritty ’70s urban dramas.