Anyone who ever wondered how the personality of a filmmaker might contribute to a film should see Antwone Fisher, the directorial debut of Denzel Washington. It fits comfortably in the tradition of upstanding, uplifting, up-by-the-bootstraps movies that are good for you, movies that carry an aura of nutrition, that merely watching them will put you on a path to being a better person. Of course, nothing in Washington's persona is quite that simplistic, and as much as Antwone is syrupy and feels over-familiar for stretches, like Washington the actor, it has the conviction to transcend mawkishness.
Without knowing who made the film, I think one might sense Washington standing behind it, anyway. Actors-turned-directors don't often step far outside themselves. They tend to reveal a storytelling sensibility that's more an extension of their screen persona than a real aesthetic stretch. Think of the colorful charm of Tom Hanks' That Thing You Do or Texas-native Bill Paxton's down-home Frailty, or even the epic flakiness of Kevin Costner's Dances With Wolves. I like that about actors. It's kind of comforting, actually, that what we've perceived about their personalities from their roles might not be off base.
Washington's Antwone Fisher, like its title character, is not a vanity showcase but more of a teddy bear bristling with repressed intensity. Like Washington the actor, the film carries a slow fuse that detonates in shouting and a flood of raw brutal honesty that startles, even if you know it's never far away. And yet still, for the most part, Antwone is quiet, with an easy-going laugh and sincere, gentle side. Again, just like Washington the actor.
The movie tells the story of a dangerously unstable sailor with quite a history of snapping and getting into fights when taunted by his fellow sailors. Antwone is assigned to three therapy sessions with Navy psychiatrist Jerome Davenport (Washington). The doctor asks where Antwone is from. He grumbles, “I came from under a rock.” So they sit in silence, for weeks on end, the sessions not officially beginning until a conversation starts. Davenport does desk work, arranging papers, session after session, just as stubborn as Antwone, until one day they just sort of chat, and Antwone's story unfolds.
There are times, especially early on, when Antwone Fisher feels like parts of Ordinary People and Good Will Hunting pieced together. But at least Washington is borrowing from the right parts, and if the film is never quite fresh, it gains strength in the kind of slow, organic gathering of emotion and power that comes from good actors who believe in the story they're telling. Indeed, it's hard to say which story is more compelling: the story Antwone tells Davenport, a tale of abandonment and abuse, drugs and violence, foster homes and death, or the story of how the real-life Antwone Fisher got this film made.
Let's start with the latter, a stars-aligning lark quickly becoming as famous as the one about how Lana Turner was discovered at a Los Angeles drugstore counter. In the early '90s, the real Antwone Fisher, who wrote his own screenplay, worked as a security guard at Sony Pictures when his story first caught a producer's attention. Flash forward a decade and Washington picks it for his directorial debut. That's lucky break No. 1. Soon auditions start, and a young unknown actor named Derek Luke, who himself works in the Sony studio gift shop and is a friend of Fisher's, tries out for the lead. He doesn't tell Washington about his connections, for fear of not being considered. A star is born.
Quiet and pensive, with a shy smile, Luke is a genuine find, and this is his first movie. Already he understands how to be shrewd and natural, and how to underplay moments more experienced actors would milk for pathos. His Antwone tells a story of being born in prison, then shifted through Ohio's foster care system, tortured, sexually abused, installed with self-hatred. Washington doesn't play it down, either, and Luke bundles a lifetime of rejection into a shrug. He gives us a kid desperately trying to channel his anger.
Washington, predictably, knows actors, and Antwone Fisher earns its strength not from pushing the usual emotional buttons - his directorial style, so far, as far as I can tell, is spare and straightforward - but from sharp casting and refined acting. Washington chose a number of pivotal roles well, especially Joy Bryant as Antwone's main squeeze, a thoughtful girlfriend and fellow sailor who provides Antwone with stability, and Viola Davis, an intense unknown actress who has had quite a year with small roles in Far From Heaven, Solaris, and now this. Playing an important piece of Antwone's puzzled past, she has one scene and doesn't say a word, but her moment is burned into my brain.
Washington himself is saddled with an extraneous subplot that runs parallel to Antwone's story. He's that old standby: a movie psychiatrist with his own flaws, who finds strength watching his patient face down demons. Their stories wrap too tidily; indeed when the film is placid, when Antwone is snug in the comfort of his perfect girlfriend and his perfect shrink, the film is a tad plastic. Where the movie gathers steam is its third act. Davenport urges Antwone to fly to Cleveland and find his family, and if it all builds to a moment of sunshine even Norman Rockwell might view with a cynical eye, Antwone Fisher earns its good feelings. It's a nine-alarm hankie wringer with class.