If you are a real person and your name serves as the title of a major motion picture, it’s to be expected that there’s a ton of drama in your tale. And with “Brian Banks” that is definitely the case.
This is a film based on the true story of a young man with a bright future as a football player who is imprisoned for a sex crime he did not commit and then wages a seemingly impossible fight to clear his name and restart his life once he gets out.
Conventional but effectively so, more tense and involving than might be anticipated as obstacles pile on obstacles, this emotionally affecting story knows enough not to push too hard and reaps the benefits from its relative restraint.
In fact, “Brian Banks” has points in common with 2009’s Oscar-winning “The Blind Side,” but the movie business has so changed in the intervening decade that this new film is not released by a major studio but by Bleecker Street, an independent distributor that specializes in adult-oriented fare.
Equally surprising is the fact that Tom Shadyac is the director. Best known for way-broad comedies like “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,” “The Nutty Professor” and “Patch Adams,” Shadyac has not made a narrative feature for 10 years following a life-changing bicycle accident.
Here he’s teamed with more serious screenwriter Doug Atchison (“Akeelah and the Bee”) and has the benefit of a forceful, multi-dimensional performance by Aldis Hodge as Banks, which elevates the material and the film.
Previously seen as MC Ren in “Straight Outta Compton” and Janelle Monáe’s husband in “Hidden Figures,” Hodge put on serious weight to play the NFL-linebacker-sized Banks, but that is not all.
For “Brian Banks” is an emotional story as well as a narratively complex one, and for it to succeed we have to buy Banks as an exceptional individual, able to rise above adversity and doubts by virtue of his determination, belief in self and overall strength of personality, all of which Hodge urgently conveys.
As a brief scene-setting prologue showing Banks watching kids playing football underlines, skill on the football field has always signified freedom to him, the feeling that nothing could fence him in or keep him down.
Immediately we flash back two years earlier, to Banks playing inspired football for Long Beach City College, delighting a coach who refers mysteriously to a past connection to USC.
Then Banks gets a call from what turns out to be his parole officer. In the midst of five years on parole after having served an equal amount of time in prison, Banks now has to wear an ankle monitor and, as a registered sex offender, must stay away from schools, playgrounds and parks, effectively ending his dreams of making it to the NFL despite the time he has lost.
As it would be with a real person, we come to know Banks (living with his mom because his prison record makes full-time employment difficult) only gradually, finding out bit by bit what has befallen him since he was a 16-year-old high school linebacker good enough to catch the eye of USC’s Pete Carroll.
Some information comes to us when Banks writes a letter to the California Innocence Project, an organization dedicated to freeing the unjustly imprisoned.
The group has previously turned down clearing his name because Banks is already out of prison, but his understanding mom Leomia (a fine Sherri Shepherd) advises her son to try again and “tell them who you are.”
One of the things we find out is that Banks has been able to stay focused because of inspired juvenile hall mentorship by Jerome Johnson (Morgan Freeman), who offers the paradoxical wisdom that “prison can set you free, your despair can become a doorway.”
Eventually we also learn the disturbing story of how a fabricated high school incident and inept legal representation leading to an ill-advised plea bargain in effect torpedoed Banks’ life.
Though Banks does form a connection with Karina (Melanie Liburd), a trainer he meets in a gym, his key relationship is with Justin Brooks, the real-life head of the California Innocence Project, played here by Greg Kinnear.
Initially it is not the kind of relationship we might be expecting, because Brooks, despite being impressed by Banks as a person, does nothing but tell him why, for a variety of reasons, the Innocence Project can do nothing for him.
While the interest of Brooks’ colleagues Alissa (Tiffany Dupont) and Marilyn (Mystie Smith) helps, “Brian Banks’” focus is on showing how the stellar qualities of the man himself made the difference. When they name a film after you, it’s no surprise that you have the goods.
PG-13 for thematic content, related images, and for language
Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes
Playing: Opens Aug. 9 in general release