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Sundance Curiosities: Jennifer Lopez-Viola Davis Starrer ‘Lila & Eve’ May Spark Controversy

Sundance Curiosities: Jennifer Lopez-Viola Davis Starrer 'Lila & Eve' May Spark Controversy

Editor’s note: Sundance Curiosities is a feature designed to preview
films at the upcoming Sundance Film Festival. Entries are written by
members of the
Indiewire | Sundance Institute Ebert Fellowship for Film Criticism.

The United States is no stranger to street violence (and to movies about it) but one look at the headlines recently dominating the country’s news outlets, and it’s difficult to ignore their exceptionally glaring beam on the subject: From shootings to other attacks on unarmed civilians, the events and verdicts from Jacksonville, Sanford, and Ferguson have converged over the last year to stoke the fury of a public increasingly disillusioned by one highly-debatable jury decision after another.

So while history shows no shortage of cinematic representations of urban conflict, director Charles Stone III’s “Lila & Eve” is primed to hit a particularly relevant note for audiences at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.

READ MORE: Sundance 2015 Reveals Spotlight, Midnight and New Frontier Films

Penned by Pat Gilfillan in his first feature screenplay, the film follows Lila (Viola Davis), who, mourning her son’s death in a drive-by shooting, attends a support group for mothers suffering from similar tragedies. There she meets Eve (Jennifer Lopez), whose daughter was killed the same day. The two form an unlikely friendship over their loss and, motivated by their dissatisfaction with the police investigating their case as well as their shared desire for revenge, they take matters into their own hands to pursue the drug dealers who murdered their children.

From the very timing of its inception as well as the film’s premise itself, much about “Lila & Eve” appears to reflect the volatile social environment around its release. Principal photography began in January 2014, barely a year after the respective shootings of 17-year-olds Jordan Davis and Trayvon Martin rocked the nation’s moral core and sprouted fresh doubts about the state of racism in America.

Now on the cusp of its first screening, the film also bears the weight of the events in Ferguson, Missouri in August 2014, when 18-year-old Michael Brown fell victim to a crime believed to be sparked by racism and triggered a veritable torrent of reignited community fury. At a time of national rage over the passive response of the judicial system, the killing spree that Lila and Eve embark on to avenge their children’s deaths bears somewhat of a resemblance to recent attacks against police officers, as civilians pursue their own perceived culprits of the atrocities that have taken place of late.

Intentional or otherwise, the presence of “Lila & Eve” at Sundance holds up a timely mirror to both individual opinions and collective attitudes around the current cultural climate.  As a result, a spectrum of audience reactions — whether they’re supportive, antagonistic, or spawn contemplative discourse around grief and anger at the system — is inevitable. In light of its correlation to real-life, revenge-based attacks, the film’s impact as well as challenge will lie in its ability to navigate the gray area of empathy for two mothers suffering the inexplicable pain of losing their children, but who then deal with their grief by turning to crime themselves. 

With Oscar-nominee Viola Davis and pop icon Jennifer Lopez in the title roles, production company Lifetime Films (along with JuVee Productions and ChickFlicks) may have chosen a glossier take on its commitment to female-focused indie films. Admittedly, the actresses’ connections to the minority communities they each represent may give the film an edge in terms of broadening its appeal. While it remains to be seen whether their glittering personas will boost or detract from the film’s core, there’s no denying that their presence will attract more eyes to see the film at all, triggering additional, newer conversations about the times we live in, the injustices plaguing them, and — as Davis herself has suggested — the ways we try to find forgiveness.

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