It’s Always Slummy In Philadelphia
Explicit Ills is an impressive effort for a relative rookie. It's less of a tapestry film and more of a salad shooter of characters and scenes hurled at the viewer. There isn't so much a plot or character development as a collection of very well done sketches and short films hurled at bullet pace. The cast consists of a number of big tier indie darlings and relative nobodies meshed together perfectly set adrift in the rough and tumble side of the Philadelphia that rarely gets recognized. Writer and director Mark Webber, who's made a name for himself as an indie darling himself, cranks the spigot on his audience and deluges them with a tale about drugs, yoga, romance, and poverty. There's no real plot, no cohesion of story, no higher message, and I was with him. Right up until the last few minutes of the film, when it takes a hard turn for the preachy, and Webber leaves you standing there, soaked, miserable, and realizing you just got hosed by a high-concept afterschool special.
Explicit Ills mines everything you'd expect for a ghetto parable: suburban drug dealers, children macking like adults, single mothers struggling to raise a kid, social activism. But there are equal measures of surprising elements: ninja performance artists, devotion to organic eating, a little boy loving his bully back. It manages to avoid on-the-nose racial dealings, or pushing the black trinity of cliche hoodscape: basketball, Jesus, or rap music. It briefly touches on one of the beautiful hidden mysteries of Philadelphia: the many murals decorating the various poverty-stricken neighborhoods. Anyone who's ever ridden SEPTA, or cruised around the less historical areas of the city, has borne witness to these friezes depicting Rosa Parks, or pastoral scenes of children playing, or even just the Spirit of 76 that fires up Illadelphia. I thought the film would sort of act as a collection of photographs, snapshots of street living of all sorts, no link between anything except location and occasion. But Webber foolishly mashes his characters together at the end in the most embarrassing contrived and randomly shameful manner at the eleventh hour, to the detriment of any originality he'd been brewing from the getgo.
The cast is surprising, not just for their talent, but for how the newbies blend effortlessly with the experienced. This is no small feat when you're a nine-year-old boy stealing scenes from Rosario Dawson and Paul Dano. Usually, kids are the death of a film, but here the littleuns rule the roost. Which is what makes the finale so depressing, because it focuses on the adults at the cost of the children. Mark Webber fooled enough film students to merit festival cred, so he'll get another chance to helm a picture. Hopefully, he avoids slopping on the ol' cheese this next time out.
Brian Prisco lives in a pina down by the mer-port of Burbank, by way of the cheesesteak-laden arteries of Philadelphia. Any and all grumblings can be directed to priscogospel at hotmail dot com.