Premiering here on the same day that some news reports speculated that antidepressants may have been a factor in the Germanwings airline crash, the quest at the heart of Ben Bowman‘s Knucklehead — in which a mentally ill man is obsessed with the belief that the right meds will make him “mentally excellent” — seems doubly misguided. Starring as the man in question, The Wire‘s Gbenga Akinnagbe offers a sympathetic performance in a film that will attract attention more for a brutal turn by Alfre Woodard as his controlling mother. Fest audiences should respond warmly to a slender character study that clings to optimism despite its troubled setting.
Akinnagbe’s Langston Bellows and his streetwise brother, Julian (Amari Cheatom), still live with their mother, Sheila (Woodard), in a Bed Stuy apartment, sharing the gloomy space with a few zombie-like hangers-on whose relationships are never explained. Shelia likes to make her Tang with vodka and seems to get some kind of satisfaction from the notion that at least one of her sons would be helpless on his own. She alternates between banging her son around when frustrated and passing out with him in her arms.
A modest but sympathetic look at a character’s struggle with illness and circumstance
The womanizing Julian is Langston’s closest friend, but he doesn’t believe Langston’s claims to have a girlfriend and his plans to get an apartment “with a bathroom, a sink and a bed.” We’re not sure we believe them either — the film offers multiple cues that some elements of the young man’s world are imaginary. That’s certainly the case with the relationship between him and a quack doctor who pens magazine articles promoting “the power of two” — that is, doubling up on psychoactive drugs to increase their efficacy. Langston regularly scrawls crude letters to the huckster, begging for free prescriptions.
His pursuit of the doctor’s help grows more intense when Langston’s domestic situation is shaken up, but this is a mission we never see much reason to be hopeful about. In chronicling a brief period that feels more uneventful than it actually is, first-time helmer Bowman allows a few gentle laughs at Langston’s naivete but only really scores in a few scenes paring him with adolescent neighbors. One of the kids, Justin S. Myrick‘s Arthur, has a smartass spark that animates scenes and balances the bleak situation at home.
Production company: Imaginary People
Cast: Gbenga Akinnagbe, Alfre Woodard, Amari Cheatom, Nikiya Mathis, Carla Duren, Justin S. Myrick, Lauren Hodges
Director: Ben Bowman
Screenwriters: Bryan Abrams, Ben Bowman
Producers: Gbenga Akinnagbe
Executive producers: Jonathan Gray, Debra Azemar
Director of photography: Soopum Sohn
Production designer: Rebecca Rock, Bradley Pearson
Costume designer: Tiffani R. Moore
Editor: Katie Ennis
Music: Michael Shobe, Benjamin Wright
No rating, 78 minutes