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The soulful, messy process of grief gets a soulful, messy treatment in Ava DuVernay’s “I Will Follow.” Taking place almost entirely in a single location on a single day, this tiny-budgeted indie contains flashes of startling insight, though it’s ultimately unable to structure them into a cohesive film. Writer-director DuVernay demonstrates some inspired instincts nonetheless, and one senses there’s a very good film in her future, even if this isn’t quite the one. Five-city rollout after a multifest run should drum up even more fest attention.

After the first of several overlapping flashbacks, pic zeroes in on Hollywood makeup artist Maye (Salli Richardson-Whitfield) on the morning she is to move out of the semi-rural Topanga Canyon home where she was nursing her recently deceased aunt Amanda (Beverly Todd, glimpsed in said flashbacks). After an early dispute with the moving company she’s hired, Maye is forced to do the bulk of the work herself, with help provided by her sullen teenage second-cousin (Dijon Talton) and hindrances provided by his mother, Amanda’s estranged, social-climbing daughter, Fran (Michole White).

It’s an intriguing point of departure for the film, as difficult memories and revelations are dredged up amid the mundane annoyances of packing and Craigslisting, and the gradually emptying house makes for an evocative recurring visual motif. But the storytelling style is alternately elliptical and overly expository — we get the dramatic, at times overblown fights, but we don’t necessarily know the backstories behind them — and can thus fall into a strange sort of limbo. Were it a little more subtle overall, or else a little more direct, the film would hit much harder.

Previously seen helming the superb music docu “This Is the Life,” first-time narrative feature director DuVernay is at her best in the small moments. Scenes involving a debate on the merits of Jay-Z vs. Nas, a rooftop chat with a satellite repairwoman and a belated introduction to the next-door neighbor all feel refreshingly real, for the most part. What’s unfortunate is that so many of these conversations interrupt their own flow in order to hit some proscribed narrative points, and what had seemed spontaneous and natural suddenly shows the grip of a too-firm authorial hand.

The cast is top-drawer for a film of this size and resources. Best of all is Omari Hardwick, who appears for a long, late scene as Maye’s quasi-boyfriend; the effortlessly charming actor reveals a side rarely seen in his copshow TV work, and his simmering, sexy chemistry with Richardson-Whitfield makes many of the preceding scenes seem a bit bloodless by comparison.

Tech contributions make no secret of the film’s financial constraints, but it looks and sounds just fine nonetheless.

I Will Follow

  • Production: A Forward Movement Films production in association with Kandoo Films. Produced by Denise Sexton, Ava DuVernay, Molly Mayeux. Executive producer, Howard Barish. Directed, written by Ava DuVernay.
  • Crew: Camera (color, DV), Miguel Bunster; editor, Spencer Averick; music, Kathryn Bostic; production designer, Jennifer Spence; sound, Gary Gossett; supervising sound editor, Kunal Rajan; re-recording mixer, Robert Edmondson; associate producer, Tilane Jones; assistant director, Kristen Mente; casting, Aisha Coley. Reviewed at Pan-African Film Festival, Los Angeles, Feb. 21, 2011. MPAA Rating: PG-13. (Also in 2010 AFI Film Festival -- Breakthrough.) Running time: 83 MIN.
  • With: With: Salli Richardson-Whitfield, Omari Hardwick, Michole White, Dijon Talton, Blair Underwood, Beverly Todd.
  • Music By: