Denzel Washington makes a fairly sentimental directorial debut with “Antwone Fisher,” written (both book and screenplay) by the same Antwone Fisher. Of the maybe twenty-in-number audience at York Cinema, at least a fourth clapped at the credits. All five sat together in a row and seemed chummy, so perhaps when one clapped, the other four joined in. I admit I did cry about twice during the film, and I bet that those who enjoy made-for-television movies would up that number. Unfortunately, however, this type of film does not satisfy the cynics.
Antwone Fisher comes from “under a rock.” His criminal mother Eva May bore him in the Ohio State Correctional Facility for Women. His father dies, shot by an ex-girlfriend, before Antwone has a chance to meet him. An orphanage nurses baby Antwone until Miss Tate (Novella Nelson) adopts him as a young boy into her grotesque household. Antwone grows up with two other foster brothers, and Miss Tate calls them all by the same name. Each boy recognizes his “name” by the way she enunciates “nigger.” Flashbacks reveal Miss Tate whipping her boys, tied up to a pole in their basement. Despite this abuse, however, one can sense a distorted squint of love that Miss Tate bears for her boys, a testament to Nelson’s performance.
At its worst, Antwone Fisher indulges in too much Hallmark Hollywood. The musical score by Mychael Danna tugs too obviously on the emotions, and the plot progresses too formulaically for suspense. Its single running joke never really commands a solid laugh (though maybe a silent chuckle). The pattern of Antwone (Derek Luke) narrating flashbacks on his psychiatrist’s (Denzel Washington) couch becomes bland quickly. The story resembles Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester too closely for novelty — a frustrated young man befriends a father figure who encourages him to overcome a difficult past.
Joy Bryant as Antwone’s girlfriend Cheryl sincerely delivers a sweet, if otherwise undistinguished, performance. At one point Cheryl tells Antwone, “you’re not the only one to see a shrink before.” That line positively sums up my wafting boredom with the basic plot.
At its most attractive, the film offers glad relief from the pitfalls of a “truly inspiring” coming-of-age story, and mostly because of its actors. Moments between Antwone and his psychiatrist Davenport often merit tears. Both Luke, a newcomer to the movie screen, and Washington play their roles humbly and beautifully. Their unassuming acting saves the film from seeming too soapy.
The narrative reveals Antwone’s story in bursts of flashbacks, which punctuate his sessions with Davenport. In the beginning Antwone denies his problem of controlling his temper, the reason he has to see the psychiatrist in the first place. “I understand you like to fight,” says Davenport. “It’s the only way some people learn,” replies Antwone. As their relationship progresses, Antwone learns a more constructive way of confronting his problems. Toward the end of the movie, Antwone narrates his best friend’s murder, which he witnessed. His friend Jessie unsuccessfully holds up a convenient store, and he ends up with a bullet through his head. “He’s lucky cause he don’t have to fight no more,” says Antwone. “Neither do you,” answers Davenport.
This film offers a thesis of hatred and a triumphant antithesis of love, managing to engage a dialogue of important issues along the way–family, race, neglect and change.