Saturday, September 13, 2014

Black And White [film review]

A drama dealing predominantly with the topics of race and a custody battle over an adorable 7-year-old girl is inherently fraught with potential hazards for any filmmaker. Screenwriter and director Mike Binder (a former stand-up comic who also created and starred in HBO's underappreciated dramedy series The Mind Of The Married Man in the early 2000s) is more than up to the task, however, drawing broadly from his own experiences as the adoptive father of a bi-racial child to inform the narrative of the excellent Black And White, which had its world premiere at TIFF. Producer and star Kevin Costner, who reteams with Binder after the pair collaborated on 2005's The Upside Of Anger, believed in the project so strongly that he took the uncommon step of financing the indie's $9 million budget himself after studios both big and small shied away from the movie's racially-charged subject matter.   

Costner plays wealthy L.A. lawyer Elliot Anderson, a man who's a little too well-acquainted with fresh tragedy in his life. Black And White's opening scene finds Elliot having just lost his wife in a car accident, relatively soon after his teenage daughter died whilst giving birth. The couple had been raising their mixed-race grandchild, Eloise (played by Jillian Estell), since the drug-addled father had ended up in prison. Elliot's navigation through his grief and mourning is complicated by his new responsibility as Eloise's sole caregiver, an escalating drinking problem, and soon a custody dispute with Rowena (played by an efficient Octavia Spencer), the paternal grandmother of Eloise who feels her granddaughter would be better off living with her side of the family.

Black And White raises numerous thoughtful points about race and prejudice, most notably during an Oscar-bait courtroom scene where Elliot speaks at length on the topic with a reasoned perspective that also reflects the character's flaws. It's Costner's best role in ages, as he plays Elliot with a perfect balance of deep vulnerability and brusqueness. Newcomer Estell demonstrates impressive range that helps elevate Black And White above the trappings of over-sentimentality that frequently torpedoes films centred around cute kids. Also strong in supporting roles are Toronto's Mpho Koaho as an overqualified tutor and driver hired by Elliot and stand-up comedian Bill Burr as a law associate and friend of Elliot's. Burr, whose hilarious Monday Morning Podcast I'm a regular listener of, shows surprising depth in a meatier role than he got to play on the other acting gig he'd be best known for, as one of Saul Goodman's henchmen on Breaking Bad.

Black And White tastefully deals with its delicate subject matters of race, loss, and family strife, resulting in a touching and powerful film. And aside from an ill-advised final act action scene that allows one character an opportunity at redemption, Binder's screenplay and his character's performances feel very relatable and grounded in reality.    

Rating: A-