An indie on poverty in Philadelphia

(Leah Kauffman)
Posted: March 13, 2009

The good stuff about Mark Webber's Explicit Ills: Although a major theme is urban poverty, his Philadelphia indie manages mostly to dodge film cliches. The boy and his single mom, the enterprising African American couple, the hipster and the art student - they ramble and shamble through some of the city's derelict streets like real people, not (political) cartoons.

The conversations on the bus, the exchanges at the corner, have a refreshing naturalness about them. And there's a graceful, oddball humor, cutting nicely against the grain of Webber's more strident socioeconomic message.

But there's a lot of rambling and shambling going on in these overlapping stories, often to the point where Explicit Ills no longer feels like it has a point. The Philadelphia-reared Webber, an actor making his writing and directing debut, takes one too many cues from Jim Jarmusch, the indie filmmaker and master of the long, quiet, deadpan take. There's a fine line between presenting the illusion of random observation - something that Jarmusch, an executive producer on Explicit Ills, manages with seeming effortlessness - and a scattershot vignette approach. The connections here feel arbitrary rather than organic.

Speaking of organic, the Roots' Tariq Trotter and Britisher Naomie Harris portray a couple trying to launch a business based on healthy foods and holistic living. Newcomer Francisco Burgos is a bright 7-year-old with asthma; his hard-pressed mom is Rosario Dawson, who gets a few big scenes - too big in the context of this low-key film.

And Lou Taylor Pucci and Frankie Shaw are the drug-dealing dude and painter babe who start a relationship in a fog of weed and drugs.

These folks, and a small troop of others, convene for a placard-waving protest down Market Street that brings Explicit Ills to a conclusion that is hopeful, but heavy-handed.


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.

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