“Blackbird” Doesn’t Fly As High As It Should

There’s a belief among some people that a piece of art is either a heartfelt, passionate representation of an artist’s vision or a calculating, pandering piece of commerce. This seems to exist as an “either/or” condition, and not as a fluid, sliding scale. It posits that independent, micro-budgeted films are inherently superior to everything big studios put out because it is less sullied by the corporate machine. However, one need look only as far as the independent, micro-budgeted films of Ed Wood to realize that this is certainly not always the case. Wood may have fully believed in what he was doing, but the best of intentions can only go so far.

So it is with Patrick Ian-Polk’s Blackbird, an independent, micro-budgeted film based (very) loosely on the classic novel of the same name by Lambda Literary-award-winning author Larry Duplechan. The film tells the story of teenage Randy (Julian Walker), a devout young man struggling with the realization that he’s gay. He lives with his equally devout mother (Mo’Nique), who’s gone off the deep end since Randy’s sister disappeared a few years prior. When Randy meets aspiring filmmaker Marshall (Kevin Allesee), the two begin a tentative romance that leads Randy to question everything he knows about himself and his beliefs.

If the film had, in fact, been called Patrick Ian-Polk’s Blackbird, that might forgive some of the missteps made. Some, but not all. Ian-Polk and co-writer Rikki Beadle Blair have taken extensive liberties with Duplechan’s roman a clef, including changing not only the setting and time (1970s Los Angeles to modern-day, small town Mississippi) but even the name of the main character (from Johnny Ray to Randy). This isn’t necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, but it does introduce new problems that rob the film of some of its energy and certainly of its cohesiveness. To call the film uneven is a bit of an understatement.

The main culprit is the script, which never feels anything like organic, even at the best of times. The first act is overpopulated with clunky exposition and a lot of informed attributes, the kind of script where the characters helpfully lay out everybody’s quirks and personalities in simple, declarative sentences. The kind of script where Randy doesn’t know who John Cassevetes is, but offhandedly references Charles Busch’s Vampire Lesbians Of Sodom. As the film goes on, this gets a little better, but the script still never truly feels like the authentic, real dialogue it believes that it is.

The cast mostly breathes life into the words by force of personality alone, especially lead actor Julian Walker. While it’s obvious that this is his first film, he has a very easygoing charisma and a good grasp on what makes Randy run. His expressive eyes and easy smile make him instantly likable. His scenes with Allesee have an endearing, simple kind of charm and a chemistry that isn’t forced or fake. Likewise, the film could have used much more interaction between Randy and his father, played by Isaiah Washington, or Randy and his openly gay best friend Efrem, played by Gary L. Gray. Whenever Randy’s alone on screen with either of them, the film truly has a clear, audible heartbeat. 

Everything comes to a crashing halt, though, whenever Mo’Nique is on screen. In a film already weighed down by severe pacing issues, Ian-Polk makes sure everyone stops to pay attention to Mo’Nique and her ACTING. And yes, she is ACTING. She seems to have only two ways of emoting here: stage-whispered nervous breakdown or unfettered, gospel-fueled hysteria. She turns Randy’s mother into an extreme caricature, and she forcefully seizes control of a narrative that she’s there to serve. This is Randy’s story, but whenever Mo’Nique is on camera, it’s clearly all about her. She doesn’t so much steal scenes as she does take them hostage with a ransom note reading “Dear Academy: FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION.”

Ian-Polk seems to have taken on far more here than he has the capacity for. The direction never rises above “decent made-for-cable film”, and the longer the film runs, the more it feels like a sweeps-week telenovela. He introduces elements that are forgotten as quickly as they arrive; Randy seems to have brief, horror-film-style, precognitive flashes of future tragedies, but this is dropped after the first act until it needs to be used to activate a plot point at the most convenient time. Similarly, the underlying theme of how Randy's religion informs his life often takes a backseat to any number of subplots when it should be a primary focus. When he finally has a kind of epiphany about what God means to him, it seems to come out of nowhere, even if Walker sells the hell out of it, and even if the moment is quite sweetly effective on its own.

Perhaps most egregious of all, the film doesn’t know where to focus its attention, which is kind of a no-brainer, since this is clearly Randy’s story. However, too many of the supporting characters take up too much of the film’s runtime, not the least of which is Randy’s mother and her subplot about the missing sister (who becomes a kind of MacGuffin in glasses). Ian-Polk and Blair further compound things when they decide to literally wrap up nearly every secondary character’s subplot with an expository monologue delivered to Randy through one of his dreams. Like a lot of the film, it leaves Randy reacting to his story instead of writing it himself.

It’s clear that everyone involved in the film — even the grandstanding, award-hungry Mo’Nique — believed in the film they were in. And certainly, Walker’s terrific performance as Randy makes the audience want to believe in the film they’re seeing. However…well, read the opening paragraph again. Duplechan’s seminal work may one day get the truly great, honest film adaptation it deserves, but this isn’t it. At least they had the best of intentions, though…right?

FBOTU Score: 5 out of 10 / C

Blackbird is available on DVD and Blu-Ray through Netflix.