John G. Thomas’ “Healer,” which received its world premiere as the opener of the ninth Santa Barbara Intl. Film Festival, is a slim, poorly written message movie about the transformation of an irresponsible ex-con into a compassionate paramedic. Though set in the potentially exciting world of paramedics and meant to raise consciousness about the elderly, ineptly made indie may only surface in minor fests or retrospectives of regional cinema.
At the center of the well-intentioned “Healer” is Nickel (Tyrone Power Jr.), an ex-con paroled to an ambulance service at the local hospital, where he must work out the last year of his sentence. As part of his training, he’s partnered with Brent (John R. Johnston), a cynical paramedic who perceives his work as dealing with “lizards, sevens and turkeys” (jargon for old people, dead bodies and charlatans).
Set in a retirement resort called Seabreeze, narrative follows the team’s adventures and the various people they encounter on the job. Among them are Igor Vostovich (Turhan Bey), an old Russian immigrant placed in a nursing home against his will, and Francie (DeLane Matthews), a young woman so committed to caring for her ailing grandmother that she neglects to have a life of her own.
Russ Reina’s schematic script, which is based on his personal experience as a paramedic, draws on all-too-obvious contrasts between children who neglect their aging parents and those who sacrifice themselves completely to the cause.
As could be expected, Igor soon begins to function as a surrogate father to Nickel, preaching and moralizing about the important things in life, and Nickel pursues an uneasy romance with Francie.
Comic relief in an otherwise stale film is provided by a character named the Jackal (David McCallum), an endearing if opportunistic drifter who seems to be present wherever there are gullible people to be exploited — be they hospital officials or patients.
Regional writer Reina reportedly worked for eight years on his screenplay, though it’s hard to tell from the finished product. His characters don’t converse so much as they deliver blatant, heavy-handed speeches about human compassion and responsibilities.
Worse yet, though Reina’s heart is in the right place, the old people are so awkwardly portrayed and shot in the first part of the film that, ironically, one might draw the wrong conclusion about his attitude toward the elderly.
Despite attempts to avoid TV-movie-like political correctness, Thomas’ clumsy direction accentuates even more the script’s conventional and didactic structure. Thomas fails to endow the picture with the energy and pacing that would lift the writing from its pedestrian level.
With the exception of McCallum’s entertaining performance as the Jackal, the cast lacks color and distinction. This is particularly true of Power, who looks and acts very much like his father, and Matthews. Neither can enliven or personalize their stiff, formulaic roles.
Technical credits are average, though Dann Cahn’s inconsistent editing lacks fluidity.