Most "inspiring true story" movies have their truth panel-beaten into a prefabricated formula and served up like a Sunday School lesson. But "Antwone Fisher" is something special. Part old-fashioned Hollywood up-by-the-bootstraps plot and part angry young product of the ugly underbelly of foster care, it's a film that delves far deeper than expected and packs a real emotional punch.
Antwone Fisher is a first-time screenwriter who sold his autobiographical script while working as a security guard on the Sony Pictures lot. But that was the end of a long journey that began with his birth in prison two months after his father was murdered. His early childhood was spent in an orphanage, where his mother failed to come claim him when she was released. His adolescence was spent being beaten, berated and sexually abused at the hands of his foster family in a Cleveland ghetto.
His teens were spent in reform school and on the street after his foster mother gave him $67 and dumped him off at a men's shelter. And when the film catches up with Fisher, he's a quiet and modest but defensive Navy petty officer with a hair-trigger temper who has just been busted down to seaman and docked $200 a month for six months after beating up another sailor.
Ordered into counseling, Fisher (played by puissant but nuanced newcomer Derek Luke) pulls a "Good Will Hunting," giving his Navy psychiatrist the silent treatment in a several-session showdown until he realizes the sooner he talks, the sooner he'll be able to stop wasting his time there.
Then the floodgates open, as they would be wont to do when your shrink is a patient but persisting father figure played by Denzel Washington -- who also makes his impressive, self-possessed directorial debut with this sincere and hopeful movie that doesn't lower itself to tear-jerking. Instead Washington earns the picture's engrossing empathy with earnest, openhearted insight.
In facing his demons, Fisher has pendulum-swinging ups and downs that reveal several painful layers of his battered but steadfast ego, and Luke's courageous performance leaves no psychological stone unturned. Fisher's abuse-related fear of sexuality, his proudly stubborn self-reliance that melts into cleaving neediness when he finds his therapist accepts his anger, the huge chip on his shoulder and his underlying sagacity -- all of it comes simply and unconditionally though Luke's choleric yet susceptible eyes.
As an actor and a director, Washington helps create an electrifying chemistry between himself and his young star as the shrink encourages Fisher to seek out his real family and confront or embrace them -- whatever it takes "to free yourself, so you can go on with your life."
When he takes that advice and returns to Cleveland, accompanied and encouraged by a beautiful girl (Joy Bryant) he clicked with at the naval base PX (the chemistry between these two is also superb, even if her unconditional attraction to him isn't adequately justified), "Antwone Fisher" begins to feel a more like a script and less like real life. But this may be only the result of condensing Fisher's search for his father's family and his negligent mother into a short, cathartic last act that just comes off too all-his-ducks-in-a-row convenient.
The picture doesn't lose any of its genuinely poignant punch over this precipitance, and it isn't the only time you can feel the story's gears turning (out-of-context scenes setting up an air of stagnancy in Washington's marriage exist only to give his character arch). But the real Fisher has bared his soul and confronted his own shortcomings here in a way that is rare in American movies, and the experience that results feels very human and very true to life.
Run time: 120 mins
In Theaters: Friday 10th January 2003
Box Office USA: $20.8M
Distributed by: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Production compaines: Fox
Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 79%
Fresh: 116 Rotten: 31
IMDB: 7.3 / 10
Director: Denzel Washington
Starring: Derek Luke as Antwone Quenton 'Fish' Fisher, Malcolm David Kelley as Antwone Fisher Age 7, Cory Hodges as Antwone Fisher Age 14, Denzel Washington as Dr. Jerome Davenport, Joy Bryant as Cheryl Smolley, Salli Richardson-Whitfield as Berta Davenport
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