There are few actors who could make the receipt of a Facebook friend request feel as cataclysmic as Aldis Hodge does during the unexpected turning point of Tom Shadyac’s fact-based drama “Brian Banks.” As the eponymous lead, Hodge is tasked with carrying the weight of a story that seems too wild and strange to be real: a heartbreaking tale of false accusations and wrongful convictions that literally hinges on an odd olive branch extended via social media. Hodge sells it, just as he sells the rest of an otherwise chintzy film, a Lifetime movie-like drama that falls short of engaging with the many thorny issues it dramatizes.
In the early aughts, Long Beach native Banks was a promising high school football player who committed to playing at USC (and for then-head coach Pete Carroll, played by Matt Battaglia in a series of inflated scenes that do little for the film’s momentum) when he was just a junior. While Banks is a straight arrow with his eyes firmly fixed on his athletic future, a chance encounter with a fellow student changed the trajectory of his entire life. In one of the film’s many flashbacks, Brian is accused of rape and kidnapping, only to acquiesce to a plea deal he is (incorrectly) told will only result in a few months of probation.
A bewildered Brian (along with an underutilized Sherri Shepherd, as Brian’s faithful mother) is sentenced to six years in prison, five more years of parole, and a lifetime of living as a felon and a sex offender. In mere moments, his entire life is over. When he gets out of prison, he’s still not free, passed over for jobs, forced to wear an ankle monitor, unable to play football, and terrified to tell people the truth. The truth is, he’s innocent, but who really cares about that? (The failures of the justice system, inherent racism, and why someone might make the exceedingly rare choice to lie about a rape are some of many bigger issues the film makes a ham-handed effort to unpack.)
Shadyac’s shaky grasp of narrative timelines mostly hobbles the film, as the filmmaker chooses to open “Brian Banks” at the end of the story, before tossing it back and forth in time, ricocheting between essential moments in Brian’s life and eventually landing back in present day with little explanation. Shadyac zings through key sequences in constant montage, setting important plot developments — Brian laboring through the creation of a key legal document, Brian and his eventual love interest Karina (Melanie Liburd) having a good date after much upheaval — to Muzak-level pop songs that telegraph the expected emotion in the cheapest possible ways.
Eventually, Brian’s determination to clear his name brings him to the California Innocence Project, where founder Justin Brooks (an appealing Greg Kinnear) initially only contributes to Brian’s desperation. For even the well-meaning Justin, Brian’s case isn’t that thrilling: Brian is already out of prison (the CIP’s clients are all still incarcerated) and it would take an “earth-shattering, extraordinary” piece of evidence to appeal to the California courts.
Hodge’s intensity and grit make it clear that Brian is charming and gifted, but with a low-simmering anger at what has become of his life. Despite the drama inherent to the film, Hodge still manages to get off a few amusing bits, including a bizarre scene in which the actor contorts his face into an expression of baffled amusement as he watches Kinnear sing and play guitar alongside a dead ringer for Counting Crows frontman Adam Duritz (that information is all that will ever be provided about what the heck that all means and what it’s doing in this film).
And yet Brian never gives up, and despite its rocky storytelling and uneven grasp on tough issues, “Brian Banks” is intermittently inspiring, a heartstring-tugger ripped from the headlines. And, of course, there’s Hodge, who will soon draw even more acclaim when his other big prison-centric film, Sundance winner “Clemency,” hits theaters this year. The films are indeed different — though, a bit like “Clemency,” “Brian Banks” does include a subplot in which the lead character finds an unexpected ally and eventual grace in prison — but Hodge’s skill in both roles is proof of his stature as a big screen breakout, and in the case of “Brian Banks,” the movie’s saving grace.
Bleecker Street will release “Brian Banks” in theaters on Friday, August 9.