Cinematic Releases: Brian Banks (2019) - Reviewed

Brian Banks covers well-tread ground, in story, message and style. It is based on a true story, but contains moments that feel manufactured. It is one of those movies where many viewers will be able to predict what is coming fairly easily. Yet it still kind of worked. Part of that is due to the power in the real story, part of it is the lead performance and part of it is a solid use of the formula.

This is a legal drama about a man trying to get himself exonerated for a crime he did not commit, so he can resume the promising football career that was put on hold when he was imprisoned at the age of 16. This is not a movie overflowing with legal information. It makes its point by leaning on the personal instead of the general. The smartest thing Brian Banks does is focus on its protagonist. I have seen versions of this story onscreen before, numerous times. What makes this enjoyable is that Brian, while being representative of the victim of a broken system, is also a sympathetic three-dimensional character.

Aldis Hodge’s performance emphasizes Brian’s pain at seeing his dreams pulled away just when they seemed within reach. After coming home, he learns the terms of his probation mean he cannot go near a school or park, making it impossible to relaunch his quest to get to the NFL. Hodge never shows Brian’s frustration as anger, just sadness solidifying into determination. Notions of justice and retribution are far less significant to him than freedom. It is a rather simple role, but Hodge is likable and relatable. Though the screenplay comes a little too close to painting him as a flawless hero, I still found myself rooting for his success.

In addition to Hodge, Greg Kinnear is good as the head of the California Innocence Project and Sherri Shepherd has a couple of strong speeches as Brian’s loving mother. They help keep the viewer’s attention as things veer into cliché. Speaking of cliché, it even briefly includes Morgan Freeman in the Morgan Freeman role of the wise mentor who gives the hero sage advice. Everything about this is exactly how the trailers make it appear, yet it is still reasonably effective at what it does.

Brian Banks rails at an unfair system that does not care about individuals. Interestingly, race is never brought up as a reason he did not get a fair shake. Considering that the incarceration of young black men is a major issue in our society, I am surprised that was not included. Perhaps it really had nothing to do with why Banks was locked away? Or maybe the filmmakers thought it was better to focus on aspects of the case that could apply to anyone who was wrongfully accused? The implication is his possible innocence was less important than the system’s need to move swiftly. It gets its message across clearly and efficiently, if unsubtle.

Brian Banks is passionate about what it has to say. It wants to inspire people to do something to help those in Brian’s position or prevent things like this from happening in the first place. Thankfully, its good intentions shine through, rarely getting overshadowed by needless melodrama. Some sections feel phony, such as the entire subplot with his parole officer, but not enough to stop me from caring. Even if you are unaware of the story coming in, it is unlikely anything here will surprise you. Despite its predictability, the journey is told well enough that it does not lose its impact.

-Ben Pivoz