When the cops don’t show enough interest in a drive-by shooting, a pair of grieving mothers take matters into their own hands in “Lila and Eve,” a vigilante thriller with a twist: Featuring an awards-caliber performance from Viola Davis and flavorful support from Jennifer Lopez (“Guess I’ll get my Tina on!” she barks, imagining her pop idol strong enough to smack back at an abusive Ike Turner), this gritty drama from Lifetime Films plays best on the bigscreen, which is how it premiered the second Friday of Sundance, though it’ll take some savvy positioning to draw its ideal audience of middle-aged women.
Add to that a younger contingent who don’t take J.Lo’s acting career all that seriously — those connoisseurs of camp who helped push “The Boy Next Door” to a nearly $15 million opening last weekend — and there’s a substantial audience out there for this cleverly conceived, earnestly executed throwback to late-’80s female-driven thrillers. The film opens solemnly enough, with a room full of mourning mothers reciting the Serenity Prayer (with its emphasis on empowerment: “God grant me the … courage to change the things I can”), while director Charles Stone III re-creates the street-corner skirmish that deprived public-records worker Lila (Davis) of her oldest son, 18-year-old Stephon (Aml Ameen).
She’s taking it hard, but that’s no surprise. Some mothers lose their minds over a tragedy this profound, and Stone rubs it in with more flashbacks than anyone needs to feel as though we know the dead young man. Still, Lila seems more stable than that. She appears rational — at least, that’s how she comes across after the movie has accommodated several early brink-of-despair sobbing moments with which to demonstrate not only the depth of Lila’s grief, but also the caliber of the actress chosen to play the part. Because let’s face it: Davis is the reason this movie stands to be something more than a straight-to-oblivion telepic. We feel her pain, and we want to see justice done.
That’s where Lopez comes in, playing Eve, a more thinly drawn character who hangs out on the periphery of Lila’s “Mothers of Young Angels” support-group meetings. Therapy tends to go better with a sponsor, but Eve has issues. She’s more interested in getting even than in moving on, and she pushes Lila to pick up where the police investigation left off. The cops barely tried to solve the case, but these two ladies have no trouble locating the drug dealer who works the corner where Stephon was murdered. The plan is to interrogate the guy and then pass along whatever clues he provides to the authorities, but Eve gets trigger-happy, and the next thing they know, the thug is dead and they’re no better than the person responsible for their kids’ deaths. After all, now they carry the blood of another mother’s son on their hands.
But instead of stopping there, they carry on the investigation themselves, working their way up the ladder of the entire drug-dealing organization. At first, amid all the silky-looking film’s dark corners and deftly handled cuts, it’s unclear whether Stephon was an innocent bystander or somehow mixed up in the illegal activity, although that ambiguity — indeed, all the film’s ambiguities — have been deliberate, asking audiences to question whether they’re holding the teen to certain unfair stereotypes.
Helming his first potentially theatrical feature in more than a decade (a curious setback after launching his career with 2002’s high-energy, high-polish “Drumline”), Stone seems determined to challenge stereotypes. Even though both the cops (Shea Whigham and “The Wire’s” Andre Royo) and the various bad guys seem to come straight out of central casting, Stone takes real measures to treat the two title characters not just as a pair of empowered-female roles, but as role models. All those flashbacks serve to illustrate the kind of attentive, engaged mother that Lila was (also true of scenes with her second son, Ron Caldwell, whereas we never meet Eve’s missing daughter), so that even as their score-settling behavior escalates to its explosive finale, the character is not without redemption.
It also tosses in a late-movie plot development that, while hardly necessary, should generate considerable word-of-mouth excitement. Turns out that the entire time Lila and Eve have been playing kickass Tina-Terminators, there has been a second agenda unfolding behind the scenes — one that at least partially excuses the way Lopez’s turn comes across so much phonier than the work she did in movies like “Selena” and “Out of Sight” nearly two decades ago. These days, she seems so much more self-conscious on camera, as if trying to look glamorous in her fur-lined coat and ever-changing hair.
Davis, by contrast, has an uncanny raw-nerve approach. Her character experiences misgivings at every step of the way, which invite the deeper level of consideration this lean genre exercise is designed to support. While it’s entertaining to see these two ladies blast their way up the chain of corruption, that’s not a terribly practical coping mechanism for those who are dealing with the tragedy of losing a child in the real world — although Davis’ performance is so good here, it’s tough to know where the real world ends and the vendetta fantasy begins.