Though accurate, the title of Jeffrey Fine’s striking feature directorial debut, “No Easy Way,” is too prosaic to capture the subtlety of this compassionate tale of friendship between two “losers,” a white pianist who’s HIV-positive and a black single mother living in South-Central. Prospects for theatrical release are good for a most timely, highly intimate drama that’s superbly acted by Alan Boyce and Khandi Alexander.
Financed by a grant from exec producer Marcia Lucas and made by several USC School of Cinema alumni, pic not only illustrates vividly the multiculturalism of contempo L.A., but also stubbornly challenges the city’s popular image as an impersonal urban jungle. Patrick Tobin’s script does contain brutal violence of a domestic nature at that but the film is open enough to allow for a random meeting of two unlikely characters who initially have nothing in common.
Handsome, thirtysomething Matthew Livingston (Boyce) is a straight pianist dying of AIDS. Bitter and cynical, he has practically given up on humanity, choosing instead a lonely, desperate life, with none of his family or friends aware of his affliction. Having given up all hope of survival, Matthew withdraws from every significant relationship, including that with his doctor, who in an early scene reproaches him for failing to show up at the hospital for tests.
One night, in a Melrose coffee shop, Matthew encounters Diana Campbell (Alexander), a young black woman who hustles people on the street for spare change. She forces him to buy her a coffee and he obliges in the most gentlemanly fashion, inviting her inside, waiting for her to be seated, and so on. But their casual chat is suddenly interrupted when Matthew faints and Diana rushes him to the hospital.
What ensues is a delicate tale of amity and love between two “deviant,” down-and-out Americans, both stigmatized as “failures,” both yearning for human contact and redemption. In slow, masterful strokes, director Fine depicts the evolution of an unusually touching bond, with each protagonist overcoming biases and suspicions about the other and learning how to share painful aspects of the past, as well as aspirations for the future.
A black welfare mother, living in a shabby motel in South-Central, Diana continues to pursue her lifelong dream, moving with her two boys to Seattle. But it may be too late: her elder son, Carl (Jermaine Montell), is already a hoodlum. In one of the film’s harshest scenes, Carl physically attacks his mom in an effort to grab her hidden savings. In contrast, young Tommy (Brandon Hammond) is a sensitive kid who takes an immediate liking to Matthew, soon adopting him as a surrogate father.
The yarn is structured as a series of “dates” between Matthew and Diana, and while some of them are predictable (they argue, split, reconcile, etc.), Fine manages to keep the melodramatic revelations under control. Of course, the audience realizes quickly what Matthew fails to see, that Diana knows all along he’s dying of AIDS. But even a standard scene, when Diana inadvertently spills the beans to Matthew’s mother (Christina Pickles), is handled discreetly, without the customary hysterics and sappiness.
Neophyte director Fine keeps a tight rein on the central relationship, finding some gentle humor in the most distressing encounters. Even more impressive is the unexpected delicacy with which he frames some unruly episodes. Fine is greatly assisted by his two gifted leads, Boyce and Alexander, who are commanding in almost every scene.
“No Easy Way” assumes a leisurely pace, with helmer taking his time to meticulously set up the various scenes. Tech credits, particularly S. Douglas Smith’s nuanced lensing and Pamela Raymer’s crisp editing, are more than adequate.