19 March 2008 | larry-411
A masterpiece which has the power to change society
I attended the World Premiere of "Explicit Ills" at the 2008 SXSW Film Festival. This film is the stunning directorial debut of Mark Webber and was shot in his hometown of Philadelphia. It boasts an incredible ensemble cast including Paul Dano ("L.I.E.," "Little Miss Sunshine," "There Will Be Blood") and Lou Taylor Pucci ("Thumbsucker," "Chumscrubber").
Although Webber has had great success as an actor ("Snow Day," "Dear Wendy," "The Hottest State") he produced, wrote, and directed this project because it was a story which he was compelled to tell. He did it from the heart, and it shows. "Explicit Ills" is simply a masterpiece.
The film weaves in and out of the lives of "ordinary" Philadelphians -- kids, couples, and families of all races and classes. From the opening shots of tidy middle class rowhomes transitioning to once-neat houses now fallen into disrepair Webber already appears to be making a bold statement about how our society treats its citizens and how their lives are affected by the state of our economy and attitudes.
Separate story lines essentially proceed independently. Given the latest fare out of Hollywood, where one anticipates a "Crash"-like blending of the characters' lives, we wait for these characters to cross paths. But Webber holds back. For how long will it be left to the viewer to discern how they (and we) are connected? The message is not force-fed. Will there be great reveals? There is a message, to be sure, but it's not heavy-handed and only comes about with a bit of thought and an open mind. Such care and trust in the audience's own intelligence shows a true sensibility rarely seen in any filmmaker, let alone one this young.
It's always hard to single out individual performances in an ensemble cast. Lou Taylor Pucci's films have held prominent places in the world of independent film, largely on the basis of his intense believability. Paul Dano, who has worked with Mark Webber before ("Weapons"), has recently achieved worldwide fame, garnering a slew of awards and critical acclaim for his performances in "Little Miss Sunshine" and "There Will Be Blood." Other standouts include Rosario Dawson ("Alexander," "Sin City," "Rent") whose performance, along with Francisco Burgos as her young son Babo, stays with you long after the end credits. Naomie Harris, Tariq Trotter, Martin Cepeda Jr., Rebecca Comerford, and Destini Edwards also stand out. Even Webber and his mother Cheri Honkala, a well-known civil rights activist in Philadelphia, make cameo appearances.
One of the great strengths of "Explicit Ills" is in its visual style (and there are many). Each storyline has its own. Lighting and cinematography each takes on a different tone for each one. For example, hand-held camera predominates in the story of Jacob and Michelle (Lou Taylor Pucci and Frankie Shaw), who spend their days in bed and on drugs. The look emphasizes their frenetic lifestyle. Similarly, another set of characters are showcased with the use of steadicam and long tracking shots. Another features long takes and the use of stationary camera. Each has its own unique color processing -- intense, bright, subdued, or washed out. The soundtrack has special significance to each storyline as well.
I sat with stunned silence as the film ended, both in wonderment at what Webber has been able to achieve as well as in deep thought about what my own role has been in the betterment of society. "Explicit Ills" will definitely make you think. Whether or not it will lead you to act on your thoughts is up to you.