Actor-turned-director Mark Webber combines the worst of two schemes in his debut feature, “Explicit Ills”: overweening artistic pretense with a crudely conceived political message. The pretense is bluntly clear from the early minutes, while the message — intended as the natural outgrowth of his script’s multicharacter tale of lives in the slums of Philadelphia — feels like a glib broadside against poverty and lack of health care. Confused, inchoate pic was overpraised at its SXSW preem (where it scored aud and lensing prizes). The needle on its commercial life hovers around zero.
A knockout title opener backed by Nina Simone’s booming, strutting version of “Feeling Good” suggests a film of terrific style and impact, perhaps along the lines of American urban dramas of the 1950s. Without introducing a context or any connective pattern among the city denizens, Webber’s concept is to elliptically cut between lives and settings until an overall picture gradually emerges.
For many, that picture will be far too long in coming, since almost every individual portrait is so glancing and thin in conception that little develops except an unreasonably glossy depiction of life at the bottom rungs of an American city.
Druggies and would-be artists Michelle (Frankie Shaw) and Jacob (Lou Taylor Pucci) make out during Webber’s swooping Max Ophuls-ish camera moves during a bash Michelle is hosting, and they sort of go downhill from there, until Michelle finishes a painting — a group portrait of the pic’s main characters. Young lad Heslin (Ross Kim-McManus) pumps iron and tries to stick to good food to get muscles, while his dad Kaleef (Tariq Trotter) endeavors to open a neighborhood store selling health products. Little Babo (Francisco Burgos) is perpetually depicted onscreen via Patrice Cochet’s arch cinematography in an angelic light, but his mother (Rosario Dawson) has a hard time keeping the family together, and safe.
While a few story strands carry affecting moments, including one involving Demetri (Martin Cepeda Jr.) working every possible angle to spark the affections of a neighborhood girl (Destini Edwards), others just sit there, like the interaction between struggling thesp Rocco (Paul Dano) and Babo, who’s awkwardly used as the pic’s mouthpiece to state that American poverty is “depressing.”
A finale involving the community marching for economic change is forced into the movie like a bolt of quickie progressive politics. The gambit indicates a distrust of everything that has come before to convey in dramatic terms the intended message, which is all the weaker and less convincing for it.
Pic’s sense of how people in the inner city actually live feels phony. Several interior locations (under Michael Grasley’s production design) look downright swanky, or at least certainly not poverty-stricken, and while exteriors are shot in Philly, interiors look very much like sets. Compared, for example, with the realism of Baltimore in HBO’s “The Wire,” this Philadelphia never achieves the same taste of true urban desperation.
Few perfs rise beyond surface readings, with Dawson delivering emotional punches extremely late into the running time, newcomer tyke Burgos seeming almost otherworldly and the combo of Cepeda Jr. and Edwards deserving a little movie all to themselves.