Review: 'Brian Banks', Mediocre Drama Fumbles Inspiring True Story And Aldis Hodge's All-Pro Performance

The timing was always curious for the inspirational drama Brian Banks, about the standout high school football player whose clear path to the NFL was derailed by a false rape allegation. At the height of the #MeToo era to present a film that highlights a claim that proved to be a complete lie is problematic, and certainly detrimental to any long-term hopes of box office success. Along with a melodramatic, quasi-spiritual narrative, mediocre production values, and a surprising lack of energy given the material, Brian Banks already has a lot going against it. In its favor is Banks' story of perseverance in the face overwhelming injustice, and an all-pro performance by Aldis Hodge that should have everybody talking.

Hodge, an actor best known for roles in Straight Outta Compton and Hidden Figures, gives a deeply soulful performance as a young man who has seen his entire future snatched away. A linebacker with a nose for the football, Banks was a sought-after prospect coming out of high school, ultimately committing to play for USC and legendary coach Pete Carroll. Banks' tough upbringing in Long Beach is largely skipped over but when he says "Football made me feel free" in cheesy voiceover, we know what he's talking about.

Banks' upward trajectory is shot down by a rape accusation from fellow high school student Kinnesha Rice (Xosha Roquemore). He's quickly railroaded by a system that saddled him with the worst lawyer ever, tried him as an adult at the age of 17, and then slapped him with a 6-year prison sentence after a "No Contest" plea was supposed to avoid jail time. Most of this is seen in flashback as the bulk of the story takes place after he's been released. Now 22 years old, his status as a registered sex offended derails any hope of playing football anywhere, because he can't be near any schools or parks, and finding work is impossible. He can't even take his new female friend Karina (Melanie Liburd) out on a date.

Most of this is told through a minimum of context by director Tom Shadyac who, perhaps unsurprising given his own life-altering circumstances, prefers to focus on Banks' inner struggle to free his mind from captivity. His weeping mother (Sherri Shepard) frequently pops up to dispense random words of wisdom, but has little else to offer. However, she's nothing compared to the saintly presence of an uncredited Morgan Freeman (who played God for Shadyac in Bruce Almighty) as Banks' mentor inside of prison. While I admit Freeman's smile can light up a movie he still needs to do more than magically appear to convince me he's changed anybody's life.

A shaky legal drama emerges as Banks turns to attorney Justin Brooks (Greg Kinnear) and the California Innocence Project for help in retrying his case. A lot of bland legalese about the need for new evidence is breezed through, with Banks repeatedly looking for ways to get Justin's attention. While overlong, there are a couple of good exchanges, in particularly a tearful scene in which Banks, who has just got Kinnesha to stupidly admit guilt on tape in front of an investigator, finally manages to convince Justin that his case is worthy. Not because of the evidence, but because he is innocent and worthy of justice despite a legal system that makes it intentionally difficult to fight back. Hodge is terrific here, as he is throughout, and I kept wishing he had a better movie to show it off with.

The re-emergence of Kinnesha, if you know the real-life story, sounds too incredible to be true. Unfortunately, it isn't made to seem even remotely believable in the film, and instead looks like a cheap narrative shortcut. This is compounded by the simplistic portrayal of Kinnesha as the worst stereotype of a poor black woman; a trashy gold digger with a bunch of kids looking for her next baby daddy.  This depiction is especially problematic given the movie's timing. Doug Atchison's script isn't saying rape accusers shouldn't be believed, but this is where the lack of complexity becomes an issue. The women are all underserved badly in this film, while Banks is generically inspiring in a sports drama sort of way. Brian Banks should portray his story as unique because he is unique, even if the unfairness he faced sadly isn't.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5